I miss their shy smiles, their hugs, the way they loosen up and get a little goofy during mindful movement. Most of all, I miss the peace on their faces and the tangible sense of ease in their orange-clad bodies after a guided meditation. It is a visceral experience that anchors me to a unique sangha: the men and women incarcerated in the DC Department of Corrections.
Since mid-March, jails and transitional facilities have been closed to all outsiders. This abruptly changed the nature of my work leading meditation classes “inside” as a volunteer with the nonprofit Insight on the Inside (IOI). We know our meditation students are suffering more than usual during this time. Most prisons are keeping inmates in their cells 23 hours a day. During normal times, this “lockdown” status may last for hours or days, and in extreme cases, a week. But never months. The isolation and stress they must feel is unimaginable.
Outside of prison, many of us have found ways to navigate our version of the pandemic-related “lockdown.” We use Zoom and other video apps to connect with family, friends and colleagues. We participate in our regular meditation classes almost seamlessly.
But the unilateral nature of sending recorded meditations via email for my IOI students strains the notion of connection.
I gong the bowl and begin:
Hello friends! This is Sheryl coming at you from Arlington at 6:30 am on a sticky Thursday morning, August 27 …
Guiding a meditation without the usual visual cues from watching my students’ bodies settle as their breath slows is a whole different gig. So I summon up their faces – often wary, tense or tired when they first enter the room – visibly carrying their many worries about their families, their health, an upcoming hearing, or from the confinement of the last lockdown.
In person, I would work at remembering their names when greeting them. There is constant turnover in both the women’s and the men’s units where I teach, so it would be a game to see whose names I could get right. We were all surprisingly pleased when I did. But even when I didn’t, I hoped my genuine gladness radiated through my handshake and my eyes – holding the physical and visual contact to acknowledge each of them.
We would begin, and I would infuse my voice with enthusiasm. I became a cheerleader for getting them out of their heads and into their bodies, with movement, with laughter, with warmth. Seeking, always seeking a way to help them create a space for their breath, and hopefully, some peace.
Now, in the recorded meditations, I’m describing the movement as I’m doing it.
Pretend your nose is a piece of chalk drawing circles on a blackboard for a series of gentle neck rolls. Let’s do some shoulder shrugs and a seated twist or two.
Are they doing it? I don’t know. It’s a “don’t know mind” practice. I imagine many are taking a pass. Even before the lockdown, with no access to fresh air and limited time in the recreation area, so many of the women have aches and pains that can make movement unwelcome.
We get limited feedback these days, but here is a sampling from earlier in the summer.
— Thank you for the meditation, I always experience migraines but this helped relieve it a little.
— At the beginning [of the meditation] I feel stress due to being locked in 23 hours. At the end my shoulder blades are not as tight as before= relieved stress.
— Very interesting how when you pay attention to the pain, breathing through it, being mindful of the pain, you can feel the intensity reduces. Thank you and Namaste.
Another student from the men’s class had written a poem, “Muddy Freedom,” in March 2020 shortly before contracting COVID-19. The last line of the poem, which appears below, resonates:
— Wisdom is always where you find it
Finally, one student beautifully shared her insight, humbling me to my core:
— When I am alone in a cell most of the day, I have a choice to feel physical bondage or mental freedom. It changes often but something about doing this meditation in the quiet I’m in had me reflect my breath to waves rolling into the shore. I believe focusing on the millions of cells maybe even billions are individual victories of having the freedom to still be alive, able to still breathe when so many people don’t have that right. I have to keep this in mind and breathe for those who can’t.
For 15 minutes I am free
A space where I can breathe
Inhale … for inspiration
Exhale … excellence
I dance this rhythm of life
In a mindful moment of silence
A voice penetrates my innermost being
A surrogate mother for a wounded conscience
A sound that guides me to still waters
A lotus that blooms from my muddy soul
Multiple layers of self-delusion
Shadows the enlightenment which stands behind it
Matronly spirit commands me to walk my own path
Wisdom is always where you find it
Colie (Shaka) Levar Long
Insight on the Inside was the result of a Good Works initiative of IMCW to encourage the practice of generosity through volunteerism. From 2009 to 2018, IOI operated under the auspices of and was funded by IMCW. When the demand for IOI’s classes grew, IOI incorporated as an educational nonprofit entity whose mission is to share mindfulness practices with the incarcerated and other vulnerable communities in the DMV. Before March, IOI was teaching 17 classes at 7 facilities, thanks to the generous support of IMCW. Today, IOI has volunteer committees for diversity, resource development, community engagement and outreach, and fundraising.