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Lions Roar : January 2018
On a recent Thursday, I met with three men in a square, con- crete room with seven or eight cages arranged in a semicircle around the center where a clinician sits or stands. Similar rooms host recreational and therapy groups. Some groups are designed for lifers only, some for movie watching, some for anger manage- ment classes. My group is for mindfulness training and some- times for managing pain with mindful attention. We meet for two-hour-long sessions each week in groups of two to four. Conventional teaching methods frequently won’t work in this setting. For example, some men won’t close their eyes. “This is prison,” they say. “I’m not closing my eyes.” Many ini- tially won’t adjust their posture to take up a comfortable posi- tion either—defiance is a default mode. I have encountered men who are not able to put their atten- tion on their breath. One man had done himself such damage with drugs that he panicked every time he’d notice his breathing. Others can’t sit still because of significant physical pain. For some men, breaking their attention away from the voices they’re hear- ing in their heads is a major challenge. And they come to me in various states of medication-induced daze. On this Thursday, one of the men I was meeting had never done mindfulness practice before. Also, I was accompanied by a clinician who was learning a new software system, and so as I taught she and a tech assistant were speaking in whispers at a small table behind me. Outside the room, the concrete corridor echoed with the grat- ing sounds of chains, doors banging, muffled rock’n’roll from rooms, voices of inmates calling out to each other, and guards in heavy boots tromping up and down the halls. All this played out against the background of the rattling air conditioning vents. One of the three inmates was already quite familiar with medi- tation, having learned about it in another facility before being The prisoner’s view from inside a cage. Bernhard teaches mindfulness sitting in a chair in the center of the semi-circle. LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2018 42