Last June, for the first time, we sent the VIMS community a fund appeal letter asking for help in meeting the costs of our prison sangha program, which include mileage for our two-and-a-half-hour drive in both directions; books for the library; study materials for the men; and a small stipend for me, for time spent planning and coordinating the Buddhist Studies and Practice Program. We have been offering the program in the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility (NNHCF) in Berlin for the past fifteen years. Your very generous response to our request for support allowed us to refine and expand our offerings. We are asking for your financial help again this June.
Throughout much of this past year year, the prison sangha focused on an in-depth consideration of the Five Hindrances to Clear Seeing. Since the men do not have access to the internet, we made multiple hard copies of the material from Gil Fronsdal’s online study guide, as well as from other resources. These five challenging mental states––anger, greed, physical and mental fatigue, restlessness, and confusion––have everything to do with the crimes these men have committed and the pain they have caused others and themselves. Together we learned specific practices that allow an intimacy with the associated mental and bodily feelings when they arise, and which also train us in the wisdom to pause before acting on impulse. One prisoner often says that the most important teaching he has learned in our group over these fifteen years is “to use the pause button often.”
Now, since completing this Hindrance study, we have been spending a lot of time with each of the Four Brahma Viharas individually––loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity––using the Early Buddhist style of practices for arousing the associated feelings and then bringing a boundless sense of radiating the skillful qualities of heart outward into the world. These four trainings are seen to be both the source and the fruit of our ethical lives. As we train in and develop them over time, they free the mind of the possibility of ill will or the desire to harm, of discontent, or of passionate lust or anger. These dangerous, emotionally based, habitual reactions become less and less the habit of mind as we practice. It has been a powerful and beautiful experience to sit together with these friends––in the heart of this high-security prison with an awareness of the several rolled rows of razor wire outside, enclosing us all––and to collectively arouse feelings of kindness, care, letting go, and even joy. Little by little, we begin to get in touch with memories of our own goodness, to trust it, to rest in it, and to strengthen our intentions to spread it into the world within the prison walls and into the world beyond those walls.
It was many years ago that I received a phone call from the chaplain at NNHCF, asking if I might come up to the prison to consult with a group of men there who were meeting regularly to explore Buddhist teachings and to practice together. Not long before, I had heard a community Dharma talk by Jack Kornfield at Spirit Rock titled, “Is Redemption Possible?” Indeed, now I have seen that it is. Usually each month we meet with a group of from eight to fifteen men. Some have been attending regularly for almost fifteen years. Others have come for several years and left on parole. Other men are newer––in fact, a new core group is arising to fill the places of those who have left. It has been an interesting and great pleasure to see and understand the very deep changes that some of us have gone through.
This year, we expanded our teachings on mindfulness and compassion beyond our monthly group offering, which is under the auspices of the prison’s Chaplaincy Department. In September, the Mental Health Department asked if I would give a talk on empathy for the men in their “wellness pod” (a cell block for men who identify as having mental health issues). I said I would, but that I would prefer to speak on Compassion. I said I could include empathy under that broader heading. They agreed, and so I gave a three-hour workshop on Compassion––based somewhat on the Mindful Self-Compassion training devised by Kristin Neff and Chris Germer––to a group of forty-four very motivated and engaged inmates. It was a poignant, deeply personal, and moving experience for all forty-five of us in the room.
Thank you for your help in continuing to make these transformative experiences available to the many incarcerated men in the far northern fringe of our Valley Insight world. Donations may be made by a check to Valley Insight sent to PO Box 634, Lebanon, NH 03766 or online at https://valleyinsight.org/giving/
With a deep bow of gratitude for all the kindness you bring to this world,
Peg, Karen, and the Board