Dear Still Water Friends,
The Still Water MPC established the Free Where You Are Prison Mindfulness Community a little over two years ago. After months of planning, including a prison orientation through the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the community began sharing meditation in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in July 2015. On that first night three of the four volunteers were denied admission: two because the necessary paperwork had not made its way to the front gate of the prison and one because the correctional officers couldn’t locate a clip for her visitor’s badge. From that inauspicious start, the community has grown to fifteen volunteers sharing meditation three nights a week in Jessup, Maryland, with dozens of men and women in three Maryland prisons.
Recently, a week-long medically-related break from my usual schedule prompted me to sit with the question: How has the Free Where You Are Mindfulness Community impacted me?
One night shortly after we began to sit at the women’s prison, as we walked out of the gate, one of our volunteers stopped and said, “I don’t know what I expected, but they are just like us.” I remember all of us agreeing. In hours of conversations and Dharma sharing we have explored our preconceptions and stereotypes of people in prison. We have had very raw conversations about why we felt differently entering a men’s prison for the first time than we had entering the women’s prison. We’ve explored our discomfort with our friends repeatedly thanking us for coming to sit with them, when we feel so benefited by the experience.
During the past two years, the volunteers have also begun to understand that our friends in the prisons are not just like us, they are us. We’ve shared the joy of people being released on parole or at the end of sentence. We’ve shared the disappointment of parole denied. We’ve grieved with friends who have been unable to be at the side of loved ones as they have died. We share the sadness of relationships broken by long prison sentences and the joy of relationships rekindled after years with a letter or a telephone call. We share the fear of friends who fear they will die alone in prison.
For me, this exploration takes me again and again to a meditation exercise that Thay (the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh) offers in The Miracle of Mindfulness. Thay teaches that we must undertake service work in a spirit of detached action. He encourages a practitioner to sit and consider a project or program, to consider the purpose of the work, the people involved, and to consider the methods used. Thay warns us that, if we look deeply and see the work in terms of who serves and who is serving, we are still working for the benefit of the workers, not for the sake of service. It is not detached action.
He also offers a second, for me more challenging, meditation exercise. Sit and consider your most significant achievement. Then, honestly recognize all of the other people who contributed to your achievement and all of the conditions that were necessary for success. He says: “Shed the light of interdependence on the whole matter to see that the achievement is not really yours but the convergence of various conditions beyond your reach.” And, of course, the opposite is also true. When one looks deeply at one’s failures, failures result from the absence of favorable conditions, not one individual’s inability.
I found this teaching on detached action extremely challenging. Although it made me uncomfortable when my friends in the prison profusely thanked the volunteers for sharing meditation with them, each “Thank You” also fed my ego a bit. When I look deeply, I liked thinking that we were (and I was) making a difference. It is harder to admit that any success is also the result of interdependent conditions beyond my reach, including prison volunteer activities coordinators who see value in meditation, wardens who approve programs, and our friends who choose to sit with us. So, I do the only thing I know how to do. I sit with Thay’s beautiful meditations on detached action. And, as often as I can, I offer gratitude for all of the conditions that support the prison project.
On Thursday evening, after our sitting meditation, we will explore the challenge of detached action. Are we able to separate our egos from the success of our service projects? Are we able, similarly, to separate our egos from the success of our professional or personal projects? Are there practices that have particularly helped (or not helped)?
Thay’s meditations on detached action are set out below.
Meditation Exercises by Thich Nhat Hanh
From The Miracle of Mindfulness
Detached action meditation
[Sit comfortably.] Follow your breath. Take a project in rural development or any other project which you consider important, as the subject of your contemplation. Examine the purpose of the work, the methods to be used, and the people involved. Consider first the purpose of the project. See that the work is to serve, to alleviate suffering, to respond to compassion, not to satisfy the desire for praise or recognition. See that the methods used encourage cooperation between humans. Don’t consider the project as an act of charity. Consider the people involved. Do you still see in terms of ones who serve and ones who benefit? If you can still see who are the ones serving and who are the ones benefiting, your work is for the sake of yourself and the workers, and not for the sake of service. The Prajnaparamita Sutra says, ” The Bodhisattva helps row living beings to the other shore but in fact no living beings are being helped to the other shore.” Determine to work in the spirit of detached action.
[Sit comfortably.] Follow your breath. Follow your breath. Recall the most significant achievements in your life and examine each of them. Examine your talent, your virtue, your capacity, the convergence of favorable conditions that have led to success. Examine the complacency and the arrogance that have arisen from the feeling that you are the main cause for such success. Shed the light of interdependence on the whole matter to see that the achievement is not really yours but the convergence of various conditions beyond your reach. See to it that you will not be bound to these achievements. Only when you can relinquish them can you really be free and no longer assailed by them.
Recall the bitterest failures in your life and examine each of them. Examine your talent, your virtue, your capacity, and the absence of favorable conditions that led to the failures. Examine to see all the complexes that haye arisen within you from the feeling that you are not capable of realizing success. Shed the light of interdependence on the whole matter to see that failures cannot be accounted for by your inabilities but rather by the lack of favorable conditions. See that you have no strength to shoulder these failures, that these failures are not your own self. See to it that you are free from them. Only when you can relinquish them can you really be free and no longer assailed by them.