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Lions Roar : January 2018
“After counting three breaths, see if you can keep track of where your mind goes. If you can’t, or if it doesn’t go anywhere, try another three breaths whenever you can.” I let them remain sitting for almost ten minutes this way. “As we come to the end of this session, check in with your body, notice any calm that might be present, and then give yourself three more mindful breaths and return your attention to the room.” The three men ended their sitting and, once all our eyes were open, we sat there for a few moments. “How was that?” I asked the new man. “It was good,” he said. “It was calm.” “Could you keep track of three breaths in a row?” I asked him. “Three breaths were okay,” he said. “I did it a few times.” “That’s the heart of this practice,” I said. “That’s where we want to start.” In helping people focus on their subjective experience, I’ve found it doesn’t take years of practice to learn to pay mind- ful attention to it. Sometimes only a couple of months of even half-committed work is enough for someone to develop a new perspective on what’s happening to them. I urged these men to take the “Three Breath Trip” as often as they can. I told them of one inmate who found himself doing it fifty or sixty times a day, whenever a commercial break came up on TV. The Three Breath Trip became this inmate’s primary prac- tice, subtly promoting an inclination to notice the inward, tactile, subjective side of experience rather than always focusing outward, toward the experiences that thoughts and feelings are reactions to. For inmates, the relaxation feels good too, even if it’s only slight. For some men, it is the only pleasant sensation they can manage. For many, it is more work than they can manage and they give up. But for a few, it has enabled them to recast their experience over the course of a few months. We spent the remaining hour talking about whatever was coming up for them. Every once in a while we’d pause for three breaths. I then offered them dharma teachings to frame their experiences. But when I meet with men, I don’t lay out the par- adigm as four truths or even as anything systematic. “Shit hap- pens,” I said to them. This is my formulation of the first noble truth. It’s just the way life is. They all recognize it. Nobody disputes it. “And we usually make it worse,” I said. “Even when we try to make things better, they often go bad, right?” Nobody disagreed with this formulation of the second truth either. Adding craving to the shit that’s already on the table is something they all have experience with. “But you don’t have to make it worse,” I suggested, translat- ing the third truth of the cessation of suffering. The injunction “Don’t Make It Worse” is the single most effective teaching I’ve found: don’t pile more shit onto the pile that’s already there. That inspiration has redirected the efforts of a couple of dozen men over the years. “Be realistic and don’t be stupid” is how they learn right view and right intention. We riff on that whenever it’s appar- ent that unrealistic expectations are leading to frustration and anger. “What do you expect?” they’ll sometimes say to each other now. “Shit happens. Guards are guards and not nurses. What do you expect from them? If you expect them to be nurses or even to be honorable, you’re just setting yourself up for frustration and anger.” After our sitting, we always talk a bit about how we can learn to not make things worse (right speech and action) by training ourselves with increasingly steady mindfulness (right mindful- ness and concentration) to notice the impulses that drag us into “worse” and give us a moment to get off that track. It takes practice (right effort). And sometimes it works. One inmate reported once about taking the Three Breath Trip when a judge was berating him in court. He stayed still and, although the judge initially denied the petition before him, he approved it a day later. That never would have happened, the inmate said, if he’d let explode what was in his mind. At the end of the session that Thursday, the men were ener- gized. I left the room while the guards came with chains to shackle them up and take them back to their cells. ♦ The Psychiatric Services Unit at Folsom Prison. “Shit happens” is Bernhard’s interpretation of the first noble truth. Through meditation, prisoners learn to “not to make it worse.” LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2018 44