Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?
~ Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King
“I was not prepared for the amount of disturbance that filled the room. Ringing cell phones answered, texting, folks walking in and out, chatting among themselves, overexaggerating responses to the beginning part of the guided meditation, it was all there. It also took about 10 minutes to even get started as most folks were late or walking in and out. I spent a good amount of time trying to shake out the energies in the room. In this case, literally having folks shake out their arms and legs.
About half way into the meditation, things dramatically settled down. I incorporated the antsy energy in the room into the meditation, getting everyone to notice the “I don’t want to be here, but I have to” mind and all associated energies and actions. Calling out those thoughts and feelings and sensations as also meditation, of also noticing what’s going on and sending compassion and forgiveness to it seemed to hook in even the most disruptive folks.
The discussion afterward was surprisingly good, if not heartwarming. Folks were really interested in the topic of forgiveness and self forgiveness and identifying ways to find freedom by such practices. One woman in particular shared that the pain from the harsh punishment by the law gave her no room to be mean or hard on herself. And, in a way, she felt grateful for the law and the harsh punishment because she never would’ve been able to find that softness towards herself. There were a lot of insightful questions directed both to me and their peers, who chimed in with insights that may have come straight out of the dharma. There were discussions on how to make peace with the treatment by police and the justice system, as well as how to make peace with the things that landed them there in the first place. We ended up going a bit over time because everyone was so engaged.
What I thought was going to be a disastrous class, ended up probably being one of my best. There was enough synergy in the room that by the end that I was starting to wonder a bit who was teaching whom.”
This story is told by Rachel Sutcliffe, one of many of Insight on the Inside volunteers. Rachel facilitates at the Prerelease Center in Montgomery County — helping our neighbors transition from incarceration to the community by providing the tools of mindfulness.
As a volunteer organization, Insight on the Inside, or IOI, is based on generosity, a key element in the practices to liberation from stress and suffering as taught by the Buddha and other men and women who have sought to understand this human dilemma. IOI volunteers go into detention centers, prerelease centers, and rehabilitation facilities in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, making about 9,000 visits a year.
When new people are interested in volunteering, Program Director Carolyn Stachowski asks them first: ‘Why are you drawn to do this work at this time in your life?’ Everyone interested in volunteering has a kind heart, but given that IOI is a majority white organization teaching mostly persons of color in institutions that are arguably one of the crudest expression of a racially conditioned culture, Carolyn tries to keep intentions in the forefront. Any sense that we are helping the pitiful is redirected: we are all pitiful.
New volunteers are also vetted for an established mindfulness practice and are expected to maintain a retreat practice. They gather once a month to talk about challenges, to review and update policies and to discuss what and how to teach. More importantly, meeting regularly establishes a sangha or community that all can draw on for resources and support.
IOI has been generously supported by IMCW since the beginning in 2009. Last year, as the scope and reach of IOI continued to grow, both organizations agreed that IOI would benefit from greater autonomy. IOI became a 501(c)(3) charitable organization this year. There is an active and engaged board of up to eight seats, with two seats reserved for people of color. A number of committees have formed to take on a wide range of tasks: ethics, diversity, community engagement, website, sangha, resources.
The mission has expanded and we expect to continue our outreach into other institutions: to inspire and empower by teaching mindfulness meditation and other contemplative practices to people in communities of need, including those who are incarcerated or returning from incarceration, in substance abuse treatment, or affected by poverty, aging or illness.
If you would like to support Insight on the Inside your generosity is greatly appreciated. Please see our website to donate today.
For more information or if you are interested in becoming a volunteer, contact Carolyn Stachowski.