We’ve been at work on our mindfulness course for inmates in solitary confinement. Below is the introductory section from the short manual we’ve put together as a quick access to learning how to meditate and work with your mind in solitary. We’re also writing a much longer, much more detailed book on mindfulness–how to do sitting meditation, how to recognize confused projections of thought and emotion, how to work with intense emotions like fear, desire, and anger, and how to cultivate an attitude of kindness. We will offer study questions, as well as mindfulness and contemplation practices to help inmates explore their consciousness, looking at the causes of confusion and suffering, and to develop a discipline of sanity in working with their minds.
PRACTICING MINDFULNESS IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
To be constricted in a tight space within four walls with nowhere to go, no one to talk to, and little to do all day creates a situation for many inmates of claustrophobia and emotional stress, just as it would for most people if you put them in that situation. In Ad-Seg, inmates often find themselves caught up in the wildness of their minds, thinking obsessively, counting the cracks in the floor over and over, growing desperate, starting to shout, even hallucinating or hearing voices that aren’t there—their minds go off the rails and they feel helpless to stop them.
This is indeed a very intensified situation in which to face your mind. There’s no entertainment, no distraction, no activities, just your body and your thought process in a small room with no way out.
But this is where mindfulness and sitting meditation can be immensely useful. If you’ve never tried to deal with your thoughts before or looked carefully at what goes on in your mind, now’s your chance. It’s a challenging, powerful thing to undertake, but it can be done, and it leads to a place of knowing how to develop peacefulness, mental stability, and insight into your own psychology.
Lack of peacefulness and mental stability come from being caught up in thoughts that rush through like a wild river, dragging you along, tossing you this way and that. Because we cling very tightly to those thoughts, we get knocked around by them endlessly, and because we’re used to distracting ourselves by going places, doing things, talking to people, or just watching TV, whatever we can come up with to direct our attention to something else, we’re not used to experiencing them as they are—a raging flood going on and on.
We may have no idea that there’s a way to be with ourselves that doesn’t involve us constantly creating distractions from our thoughts. Crucial to mindfulness is understanding that you can bring your attention back out of your thoughts to the present moment, the physical situation of here and now.
You may feel that the here and now is a terrible, ugly place of loneliness and boredom: just a bed and light and a toilet and some drab concrete. That may be. You’re not in a luxury hotel, you’re in a prison cell. But what it has going for it is that it’s actual, it’s tangible, and it’s here and now, and it’s where your body is. Your thoughts, on the other hand, are creating all kinds of scenarios, dramas, guilt trips, struggles, and anxieties. Your thoughts are obsessing on things that have happened in the past that are gone and can’t be changed. They’re imagining the future, filling it with all kinds of fantasies, but the future hasn’t arrived; the future is always coming, it’s not what’s really here, and much of what you think has nothing to do with how things will eventually shake out. You’re just imagining stuff that hasn’t come to be.
Even the present moment becomes about what you’re not getting or who you’re blaming. You’re thinking about the present moment but you’re not actually in the present moment.
Mindfulness trains us to bring our mind back out of our thoughts and into the present. It means we’re synchronizing the mind with the body, so they’re both harmonized in the present moment. When that happens, clinging to thoughts releases, and there’s another quality of mind that surfaces, an awake, alert but relaxed quality that actually does feel good and wholesome, or at least calm. Practicing mindfulness gives you a way to develop a stronger, more resilient, less discouraged mind, and a sharper, more accurate perspective on your life.
You might think this will make you stupid, that you’re sitting there just like a stump. But what makes us stupefied comes from our clinging blindly to thoughts, no matter how crazy they get, and struggling hopelessly to fight them off. That makes us both crazy and stupid.
What we don’t get is that our mind already has a calm, sane quality. That comes out as we synchronize the body with the mind in the present moment. Then we’re all there, completely present with what we’re doing. Whatever you might be doing, if you’re paying complete attention to that, you’ll do a better job. If you’re driving and paying attention to the road and the cars, you’re much less likely to get in an accident than if you’re distracted and hung up on something else. If you’re cooking something, you’re less likely to burn it. If you’re making something, you’ll craft it well if you’re fully paying attention, and more likely do a poorer job if you’re not all there.
In a prison cell with nowhere to go and nothing to do, still you’re alive, you’re breathing. You might be reading a book or writing a letter. You might be receiving your meal, or it’s time to go to the exercise yard or take a shower. There are events that happen, like meals, which punctuate the day, and times when you sleep or do have to do something. There’s lots of time in which to practice sitting meditation and intensively work with your mind. But the general principle that’s the discipline of mindfulness is that no matter where your mind goes, no matter what idea or emotion it gets stuck on, you can always bring your attention back to your body, to your cell, to the here and now, and that’s actually a place where you can find your sanity if you’re willing to look for it.
It may have nothing to do with all your fantasies and daydreams, but it’s always there, a simple, sane quality of being in the present moment, in this body, with this mind, waiting for you to come back to it.