Our first Buddhist Meditation class was held last Saturday morning from 9:30 to 11:30 at supermax Prison. This prison is the only maximum security prison in AZ and the level of security there is intense and pervasive. Cameras are everywhere and all doors are remotely controlled and locked. It's a relatively new facility (about 14 years) that is clean and quiet with wide and long tiled hallways which belies the harshness and human suffering that often occurs there.
I entered the large and spacious chapel where our class is located. I was the first to arrive with my correction officer's escort. There were meditation mats but no cushions. I'll make arrangements to get cushions for the next class. You could hear a pin drop in the chapel. Sooo quiet! And the room is climate controlled, so altogether it is an excellent and comfortable space to practice meditation and study Buddhist teachings. After sitting alone for about 15 minutes, the inmates arrive. There are eight of them and as they approach I can see their broad beaming smiles. We shake hands and introduce ourselves. One of the guys tells me they've been working to get this class started for eight months! Three of them are experienced meditators and the rest have some degree of exposure to meditation practice. We sit on the zabutons (mats) and fold over one edge of the mat which acts as a sort of cushion for us.
We spent a good amount of time learning about each other's meditation backgrounds and what each of our expectations are for this new class. One guy is currently practicing a lot of tonglen practice (a Tibetan type of mahayana practice), another is a vispashyana practitioner (Insight Meditation Society), and another is into John Kabot Zinn's mindfulness techniques. The rest of the guys have meditation experience through various martial arts including Ta'i Chi Ch'uan.
Finally, we end with a guided meditation and then silent meditation for about 20 minutes. We focused our attention on various parts of our body, then focused on the move of our breath and finally on the contents and space of our minds. I then introduced a simple breathing technique. The guys were so happy to sit together in a quiet place! They were over-joyed with the first class and and we parted with a palpable sense of interconnection and looking forward to studying and practicing together for many many classes to come.
I left the prison the way I arrived, escorted by a C/O, through remotely controlled doorways, walking silently down long hallways, through two security traps to the main security entrance/exit. The only difference for me was that I arrived to supermax prison with some uncertainty and anxiety about what I would encounter and I left with a warm heart and a vision what is possible.