Prison Mindfulness and the Power of Perspective

Prelude: Walking meditation is an important practice in many Buddhist traditions. The basic idea is to continue the focus on the breath that is the core tenet of sitting meditation, but to do so while walking. This article illustrates the power of walking meditation in difficult situations, when the level of pain and suffering can make sitting meditation almost unbearable. Allow me to introduce Irma, who practiced walking meditation for many years inside a prison cell.

Irma’s Story

She slowly walked back and forth across the tiny room, placing one foot in front of the other in small steps, each time paying attention to the way her foot felt touching the floor, each time aware of her breath. As she walked, she looked down, and over time, each of the tiny imperfections in the floor -- the cracks, the discolorations -- had become familiar in a way that was both comforting and disconcerting. She held her hands behind her back as she walked, the two hands holding each other, her shoulders drooping as if succumbing to some great, invisible weight. She continued this walking meditation for hours and hours, day after day.

She recalled a book that said that peace was available to anyone in the present moment, but could that possibly be true even for those who had done what she had done? The words on the page had provided a cursory instant of hope in a sea of fear and loss. Last week, a visitor had reminded her that what had transpired had been an accident, and she’d been comforted, at least fleetingly, by those words. She tried not to think of how society would view what had happened, and she did her best to return her focus to her breath, and how her feet felt on the floor. 

The guilt was both unbearable and unimaginable, a heavy, dense cloud of darkness that followed her around the small room that was entirely devoid of anything. Her book had advised breathing through difficult emotions, welcoming them, investigating them. This seemed to her to be out of the question. The guilt was too much, too big and too powerful. Yet there was nowhere to hide. Day by day, tiny bit by tiny bit, she began to allow the guilt and to relax around it ever so slightly. Change was tiny and incremental, undetectable at any given point in time, yet consistent.

Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. One by one her hairs became gray and lines appeared on her face, and every single day she walked slowly back and forth, placing one foot in front of the other in small steps, each time paying attention to the way her foot felt touching the floor, each time aware of her breath, bringing her mind back to her body, and paying attention to her surroundings. Ever so gradually, things changed and she began to feel a sense of refuge in her breath and in her steps. It came in small slivers, fleeting, mostly, but the refuge sustained and held her. Life was doable. The book had said that happiness was independent of external circumstances, and she had come to experience this at least a little bit. Her mindful steps back and forth in the prison cell were in truth no different from the mindful steps taken on spiritual retreats, yet the two situations elicit very different responses in most of us. The power of perspective is clear and ominous.

What is your prison? What situation is it? Is it your job? Your relationship? Your health? How do you view your situation, and what are your thoughts? Isn’t everything just a matter of perspective?

In the prison cell, she learned transcendence. There was, after all, no point in resistance, no point in fighting it, trying to change it, or in struggling over how things were. She learned of the powerful, deep peace that arises from complete surrender. She kept going, day after day, year after year, putting one foot in front of the other, breathing in as she stepped with the left foot, breathing out as she stepped with the right foot. She focused on the solidity of the floor beneath each foot, and on the sensations she felt as each part of her foot touched the ground. She felt the breath as it passed through her nose and filled her belly. She allowed herself to experience the devoid and nothingness reflected by the bareness of the room, and in the emptiness she felt peace. There was, after all, nowhere to go, and nothing to do. As I write this, there is a realization that she suffered considerably and a desire to fully acknowledge and respect that. Still, knowing her over the years, there were some similarities between her life and that of a yogi deep inside a cave in the Himalayas, with abundant time for solitude, practice, and deep insight. While she did not see it that way, and in truth I do not either, the comparison does at least hold some elements of validity. She practiced so fully and deeply with the noble aim of transforming suffering for us all. Life is truly just a matter of perspective.

Author Bio: Leigh Ann Lipscomb, Ph.D. is a lay Buddhist ordained in the Order of Interbeing of Thich Nhat Hanh. She is both a Shaman and a Certified Resonance Repatterning pracitioner in Chico, CA. Her website is www.leighannlipscomb.com, and she works online with clients all over the world to heal difficult emotions and realize the power of perspective.

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