Leading prison meditation groups is quite fascinating because they are unlike most groups in the free world. The culture, values, and priorities of prison life differ from those in, say, a meditation studio or yoga club.
While people living in prison might be after the same outcomes as those of us in the free world — calm, focus, compassion — the benefits do not carry the same weight. A calm, focused mind in the free world creates a ripple effect of positive energy through the various areas of our lives. But in prison, it’s easy to understand why a calm, focused mind could be harmful.
STRENGTH AND WEAKNESS
At a recent meditation group in a men’s prison unit, one of the participants asked, “Does meditation make me passive?”
I asked him to explain his question.
He said, “Well, for example, if some dude gets in my lane and won’t move, I don’t want to be this passive coward who just gets out of his way.”
“What response do you want to have?” I said.
“You know. I want to make sure he knows that’s not okay. But I’m afraid meditation will make me want to step aside and let this guy think he can walk all over me.”
I began to answer his question with a story:
“I love my children. But every single one has passed through the Terrible Two’s and the Even-More-Terrible Three’s. Every parent knows that when a two-year-old is playing with a toy and another kid takes it away, what does the first two-year-old do? He hits the kid who took his toy.
“Now,” I continued, “would you say that that two-year-old is strong? Would you say he’s tough? No, probably not, because he’s doing what every two-year-old does.
“So, if a guy ‘gets in your lane’ and you want to make sure he doesn’t do it again, you would probably stare him down, shove him, maybe even hit him. In other words, you would do exactly what a two-year-old does. When we react to every impulse, explode every time someone gets in our lane, and use our physical bodies to send a message to others, we’re not men, we’re two-year-olds.
“Does that sound like strength to you?” I asked.
He thought for a second and then said, “I guess not, but what am I supposed to do in here? The minute people think you’re weak they take advantage of you.”
The discussion spread around the room as other participants chimed in.
“Strength isn’t just physical,” one man said.
“Most people are just trying to push your buttons. If you ignore them, they leave you alone,” said another.
For close to half an hour participants offered their insight and a few of their own experiences in dealing with confrontational people. The vast majority pointed out how much better a situation resolved because they refused to let their emotions escalate.
Finally, one of our volunteers recalled a quote he read from Bruce Lee. He didn’t have it with him so he paraphrased, but here’s the quote:
“Emotion can be the enemy, if you give into your emotion, you lose yourself. You must be at one with your emotions, because the body always follows the mind.”
True strength is not found in our fists or our will to fight anyone who gets in our lane. True strength is found in non-attachment, in ones ability to maintain control regardless of other people’s actions.
Men like Bruce Lee aren’t strong because of their ability to fight and physically overpower most people. They’re strong because by controlling their emotions, they rarely have to.