Wednesday, March 14, 2012

From Condemned to Redeemed

Book Review -- Letters from the Dhamma Brothers
 
A room full of vicious animals or a room full of deranged, hardened convicts--I don't know which is a more fitting description of hell. In 2002, three brave individuals descended at Donaldson Correctional Facility--a maximum security prison in Alabama--with one goal: to teach violent inmates the ancient, non-violent technique of vipassana meditation in the tradition of S. N. Goenka. They sat in stillness with the prisoners all day, slept in the same quarters, and fearlessly held one-on-one meetings with them.

What! Were they kidding themselves? Did they not fear their safety? What did they expect? That the prisoners would just sit there in silence and listen to the ramblings of the Buddha's teachings? That they would just break down and start sobbing? That the technique would actually spark the transformation of these hardened criminals, showing them an effective way to address their miseries?

Um, actually, that's exactly what happened.

Letters from the Dhamma Brothers by Jenny Philips is not a theoretical abstraction of spiritual teachings, but rather a factual, unembellished account of twenty prisoners--all serving life sentences and many on death row for brutal crimes--who sat a complete ten-day vipassana meditation course in a prison gymnasium-turned-monastery. Special mention is due here to author and psychotherapist Jenny Philips who initiated the vipassana program at Donaldson and worked tirelessly and compassionately to open hearts and minds to the human capacity for hope and change.

I could summarize the deeply stirring experiences of the inmates; however, justice would be better served if readers were given a direct, first-hand narrative from the meditators themselves. Here are five quotes that paint a perfect picture of the "before" and "after" versions of inmates, in their own words, as they expressed themselves in letters they wrote to Jenny and the three vipassana teachers:

  • James George
 "My meditation has become deeper, my understanding more thorough and my acceptance far greater. The balance I have achieved is unbelievable. I am no longer overwhelmed by daily situations. ... On 9/10/02 I was moved from the Drug Dorm to 4-Block, a chaotic hell. On 9/18/02 I was moved from 4-Block back to South Side into H-Dorm. On 9/23/02 I was moved from H-Dorm next door to B-dorm. On 9/26/02 I was moved from B-dorm back to the Drug Dorm. And you want to know what's really funny about all this? I'm not the least bit perturbed about any of this. In fact I find it a great learning experience."

  • Edward Johnson
"Sometimes I look back and imagine how messed up my life once was, compared to the way I live now and smile. I finally have something to smile about. Now don't get me wrong--everything isn't "peaches and cream" here. Like for instance; I got stressed dealing with my past involvement with the "gang" life & still having to explain my disassociation with them. I don't mind explaining though, because whether they like it or dump it, 'I am happy & at peace with me now.'" 
 
  • Benjamin Oryang
 "I felt as though I'd never really been happy before in my life. But on that day (tenth day of the vipassana course), I was, you know; I actually felt happy. I was there, I was happy, in prison with a life sentence, really I've got a few life sentences, but it's called a life sentence--I don't know what's going to happen with my life or anything, but I was so happy."

  • Willie Carroll
 "Here in prison such a sitting to meditate offers a peace of mind in a really dangerous environment. Now I'm able to sit and seriously seek guidance, a better state of mind before facing people around me, my day goes better. Not that I feel saved or happy--I do feel secure in how I'll react or act today. ... Jenny, being a prisoner ain't easy especially if you've lived here 26 straight years and have experienced a hard-core prisoner life, then strive to change what you've come to enjoy--no matter how wrong ti was. ... Vipassana offered further more great freedom where none was. So now, I'm okay Jenny with who I am--I do not dig where I'm at, but it's okay."

  • Omar Rahman
"Let me tell you Jenny, morning dew in the spring never smelled better. I still get angry, but it doesn't last. I still get offended, but I'm quickly over it. I still experience depressed moments, yet only for moments. I've been blessed with awareness and with skills. Now instead of being caught up I recognize what is arising and I skillfully, or I try to skillfully, allow it to pass away without attaching myself."

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