Imagine you are teaching a meditation or mindfulness class in a prison with a group of young men from varying backgrounds. They are presenting a fairly good 'case' for why their life is not geared toward transformation or meditation practice especially after being released from prison: the harsh realities of the urban lifestyle, poverty, the necessity for gang life as a means of survival, the pervasiveness of a culture of violence, lack of family support for such efforts, cultural conditioning, race relations, etc. etc.
The young men are presenting a very bleak story of despair...and of systemic oppression, lack of resources and support in the 'real' world outside of prison and away from the weekly meditation group.
What would you say in response, taking into account that most of us as volunteers, are coming from positions of privilege and resource?
A quick survey of historical movements for social justice reveal oppressed people(s) not being confined by despair, of recognizing that despair is what "the oppressor" wants the oppressed to feel. Such despair serves the status quo, not liberation (however that word is defined).
Although I have always had white privilege and some degree of class privilege, I have also had many experiences with violence, addiction, poverty, mental illness, and discrimination. Those things did not keep me away from practice -- they are what brought me to practice, by creating a longing for liberation and also a very vivid reality check that continuing to live in the way that I had been was a guarantee of bringing more suffering on myself and the people I cared about.
I tried to practice alone for many years fearing that I was too strange and different to participate as part of a sangha, and it was the stories of two ex-prisoners/drug addicts that most vividly demonstrated to me that this was my own insecurity, not a constraint imposed on me. The stories of Angulimala and Milarepa were very helpful as were the writings of Claude AnShin Thomas.
The bottom line for is that I don't relate to Buddhist practice as something I "should" do, rather it is life-saving in the face of stress and difficulty. There is no way to know that other than to try it and to reflect on whether it helps in one's life or not.
There is also a responsibility for all of us on the outside to create sanghas that are able to offer genuine support to people as they're getting out of prison, and as part of that to to deal with the racism, classism, and other forms of oppression that are strong threads within North American Buddhism. Within my own sangha there has been some discussion about the barriers created by charging fees for participation, the lack of childcare for intensive practice, the Eurocentrism of some of the dharma talks, consumerism within Buddhism, etc. but there is a long way to go.
The Buddha was neither the first nor the last to say that poverty is the root of crime. Here in the richest nation in the history of the planet we can't get our social mind around the fact, the cause, the cessation of, well, a lot of social ills including poverty, crime, class based oppression.
I take a deep breath and let go of it again, and again.
“Are you suffering enough that your desire to change is burning like a hot coal that is stuck in your throat—a hot burning coal that you can neither spit up nor swallow. Has your life become so intolerable that you must change or die?”
If the answer is “no”, I would tell them to go away and leave us alone. We are only willing to work with those who are serious. “Come back when you are really serious, when it is a matter of life and death”.
Now for those who remain, those who have convinced us that they are ready to change, I would lay out the simple time tested program that has been taught to me by my teacher, speaking from the same mind as Buddha:
1. First you must change your mind.
2. Then you must see your suffering and what is at the root of your suffering:
“Your angst is your liberation” --Junpo.
3. Then you must understand what meditation is and what it is not.
4. And finally you must practice meditation every moment.
Then I would ask them: “Are you willing to follow this simple path? If you are not willing to follow it, then go away and leave us alone. Come back when you are willing to change. Come back when it is a matter of life and death”.
And finally with this small group of human beings who are ready and willing to change, we will transform the world.
To me the first noble truth has always pointed to something crucial: start with what IS. It acknowledges that life is suffering and does not make light of that fact. I work with adjudicated youth, most of whom are going to exactly the kind of conditions you describe, and what I say to them is always this: I am not going to live their life and I DO NOT claim to understand or know their suffering. They WILL encounter all of these things, and so they must always return to the moment, return to that very fundamental first noble truth, and go from there. Practice is not about perfection, it is about this moment, always this moment.
I also feel it is more important HOW one is speaking than WHAT one is saying. I am a white male from a priviledge background. When I first meet with my clients, who are all African-American, very poor, urban kids, we talk about this. And I relate to them as fellow human beings - neither ignoring the differences, nor hyping them up. It is always my goal to see the best that is in them, and speak to that. And when I do this, the differences don't just "go away", but they quickly realize that I am not coming at them from a position of priviledge, or looking down on them, and even when I DO make a suggestion that doesn't take my own priviledge into account, they are comfortable reminding me of that, and we move forward from there.
thank you all for responding to this with such helpful and interesting reponses. We get questions like this all the time at the PDN office and its good to have something 'in print' for folks to refer to!