i'm about to write my first letter, but i'm not quite sure what to say? should i give some information about who i am and what my dharma practice is? also, are they looking for a spiritual friend, or more for someone to give advice and instruction (or both)? any advice on how to get this started would be appreciated.
There is no one right way to approach this and in my experience the most important thing is to just be yourself rather than trying to do it "right" -- being natural and genuine goes a long way. On a practical level your idea of giving some info about who you are and what your dharma practice is sounds great as a way to start. What each prisoner is looking for is quite variable so if you can ask what they're looking for that might help give you both clarify what the expectations are. Generally I've found it helpful to ask some questions to help the conversation flow (as letter writing is one way and sometimes people in prison feel like they don't have a lot of news to report so aren't sure what to write about, although others are very busy!) -- for the first couple letters I often ask what sparked their interest about the dharma, how they heard about PDN, what they're looking for in a pen pal, etc. I also often mention just some general "get to know you" stuff like family, where I'm from, etc. so they know that my approach to the relationship is that dharma practice (and hence our correspondence) is to investigate practice in day to day issues, not just in sitting, chanting, etc. After that first back-and-forth I typically invite them to talk about whatever they're comfortable talking about but try to ask them to relate it to a practice context -- how we practice with what is in front of us.
There are a couple threads of discussion on the PDN forum around safety concerns (using one's own address, sending photos, etc.) -- you might be interested in reading the different opinions as there is a real range. My take from the discussions is that within PDN different people have different boundaries and approach it differently and that the variety is part of what makes this work well.
I've been writing prisoners for 20+ years and have never had any safety concerns or problems arise from using my full name. Other people might not feel comfortable doing this and prefer just to use first name, or a pseudonym. I think that whatever is comfortable for you is fine. In terms of revealing specific personal information, again I think that's more about your comfort level than any particular risk, unless you have a loved one in prison -- I have been in this situation and I have found that it has been important not to divulge too much of what is going on with them as it is a very small world and two prisoners can end up in the same prison and it can be an uncomfortable situation when one knows quite a bit about the other from correspondence with a loved one (that's an issue around privacy and their safety, not around your safety).
Over the years I've found that the boundaries I have with prisoners are not substantively different than in the outside world -- info I wouldn't tell a stranger on the street, I don't tell a prison pen pal in the first letter. If there's ever a specific situation/topic you're not sure about, this forum is a great place to get a variety of perspectives.
You really have summed up your long experience nicely for us. As the mother of a prisoner, I send you my heart-deep gratitude for your humanity and compassion in reaching out across those terrifying walls, especially to people who feel discarded and abandoned. I send you a bow of respect.
I think there is concern in this area. And yet, it is a form of deception. Nonetheless, I have decided to use a spiritual name in the Dharma. My personal information will be brief--age (not birth date, relationship with family, simple); no statistical data.
thanks for the good advice. i have been procrastinating for quite some time in writing a letter because of not knowing where to start or what to say. i have a tendency to usually say more than is necessary and get off track. after reading the replies in this thread i feel like i am ready to correspond with someone. this raises another issue: i look at the list of all the people and can't decide to whom i should write. should i write to someone who is going to be in the system for awhile or should i write to someone who is getting out next year. what if they ask about moving in with me! i believe i'm making this more complicated than it is and worrying to much...need to be in the moment and relax! lol
First and foremost congratulations for your willingness to share your love and openness in a fresh, new way. As other people have suggested, the relationship will unfold naturally, chances are you'll both be guided and your intuitive heart will find balance after your initial steps. If you allow yourself to be open to explore and listen to your dharma practice insights, you'll be exactly where you want to be.
I am also new and just picked someone from the list to mentor.
However, I am not new to conversing with inmates; I am a nurse who has done a lot of
work with inmates ( male & female) over the last 10 yrs.
I will start with his letter as I would with any new pen pal :) ...
( keeping in mind some anonymity)
Thank you for posting this question Alexis. I have just selected my Dhamma friend from the list and I am, a little apprehensive about what to say as well. I have thought of doing it for so long. My decision to participate in this process came during meditation. Based on the thought that came up, that if I wanted to alleviate suffering to go where the suffering is.
I have experienced a lot of ups and downs in my practice and I think that I am going to just write about where my practice is right now. The Suttas, verses and experienced that have aided me most lately and then briefly introduce myself.