Long Term Meditation Retreat

A Solitary Confiement Cell
Have you ever wondered what you would do if placed into a prison environment for a period of years?

Yesterday I viewed a recent National Geographic Channel program entitled Solitary Confinement, which was shot at a Colorado maximum security prison.

I do recommend clicking on the above link and watching the show in its entirety.

The episode is narrated by Peter Coyote, whose voice seems to accompany more and more thoughtful documentaries out there — non-intrusive, smooth and distinctive, it works well here.

A day after watching, I’m left wondering just how effective the System’s plan of “rehabilitation” is, when so many inmates are driven to suicide and unhealthy mental/emotional states as a result of being locked in an 8′ x 10′ cell 23 hours a day, with zero physical contact (other than sticking their hands behind their backs and through a hole in their cell doors in order to be cuffed).

Through interviews with inmates, guards, the warden and various sociological and psychological professionals, a very disturbing picture emerges.

While the System describes this treatment (nearly unique in the world, as the U.S. is virtually the only country that has revived strict solitary confinement as a primary “rehabilitation” tool, having previously rejected it early in the 20th century as torturous and counter-productive) as an attempt to “re-program” compliance with “rules,” it is clear that sustained isolation, constant harassment and a sense of total helplessness actually leads to a vastly increased likelihood of spontaneous acts of violence and insubordination.

In other words, a policy of pervasive solitary confinement produces the exact behavior that it is purported to correct.

During one of the inmate interviews, however, we are met by a distinguished-looking Hispanic man whose expressions are penetrating and thoughtful. The camera looks through the small glass opening in his cell door, and we see him pacing around in his little box, doing push-ups, straightening the covers on his bunk, peering longingly through the thin slice of a window that is his only reminder of an outside world (unlike the image above, which shows a full window).

He tells us that inmates are ill-equipped to deal with the unnatural stresses of isolation, and that most are permanently damaged over time. He also describes his own problems and difficulties with the treatment he receives, while confirming fears that he may not emerge unscathed, either.

To what solution has he arrived?

“I meditate.”

And the camera shows him assuming a lotus position on his bunk, settling in for the duration.

While the topic of meditation is allowed to fade and is never again addressed during the show, we return to this particular inmate on several occasions — and it is patently clear that he is the most well-adjusted, earnest, self-searching and thoughtful individual in the entire documentary. Guards, warden, psychologists, sociologists — even Peter Coyote! — all pale in comparison with this man’s presence.

Subsequent reflections include:

1) I’m drawn to the possibility of teaching such prisoners skillful meditation that leads to self-arising bliss, joy and ecstasy, so that they may experience inner transformation that renders outward circumstances relatively impotent.

2) I would love to make contact with this particular Hispanic inmate, as I would imagine that he has given rise to ecstatic phenomena while meditating in long-term isolation. It would be interesting to see how he deals with the inevitable Dark Night period symbolized by the transition between second and third jhana.

3) I would love to make available to dedicated prisoner-contemplatives a full printed set of the Sutta Pitaka, and to enter into letter-communication so as to offer alternative translation possibilities that will more appropriately meet them in their ecstatic manifestations.

I know, I know, I know… I’m probably just dreaming here, as the System is not truly interested in rehabilitating inmates, especially when they have been deemed “incorrigible” enough to end up at a strict solitary confinement institution like in this show. The System does not care that it is crushing these human beings and turning them into damaged shells of their former potential. The System is simply complying with a perceived social imperative to put these inmates out of sight and out of mind, warehoused like laboratory rats.

That said… what if we could show that saturation in meditative absorption creates a desire for more and longer periods of sitting; that it evokes deep and permanent personality shifts that tend toward calmness and serenity; and that this is by far the most useful approach to enduring months, years and sometimes decades of forced isolation?

I do believe that, faced with a situation as described in this documentary, there would be plenty of inmate volunteers interested in adopting a rigorous and skillful meditation practice that is perfectly adapted to long-term isolation. In fact, I can think of no better application of this practice.

Are there any prison officials out there — especially in the Denver-Boulder area — who are reading this and would be interested in a pilot program to teach solitary inmates ecstatic meditation?


11 responses to “Long Term Meditation Retreat

  1. I agree with your aspirations to teach ecstatic meditation, ie contemplation, to prison inmates. I know meditation is taught in prisons, so why not you and I doing that? I see no reason why not.

  2. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. And, thank you, National Geographic. I think it’s a noble idea to present a contemplative practice to those in solitary confinement. I suppose one would have to make the offer at an opportune time – somewhere between vengeance and resolution to hopelessness. I think I’m shell shocked. No need for me to vent here. Here’s to the potential an hour or three a day may influence one’s life.

  3. Noelle Imparato

    Well you know there are a number of Buddhist institutions which work with just such a program: helping inmates to meditate in prison. Certainly the San-Francisco Zen Center is heavily entrenched in that work. I myself was one of their ‘pen-pals’ program. I wrote to an inmate for a couple of years. The idea was to give him some support, listening to him, making him feel human, give advises if asked for, but especially send him books. He had a long list of books and audiotapes he requested regularly. He had organized a prison sangha. They meditated together regularly, etc. Now these individuals were not in solitary confinement. I don’t know what the rules are for those prisoners. But you might want to check out with the various Zen and other Buddhist Centers that are already offering this kind of service.

  4. Just zapping through the Buddhism section on Word Press… To be in prison like that and learn about Buddhist meditation in the context of achieving a first insight into Ultimate Reality or the One Mind – I am not sure where the ecstatic comes from, that has got to be an intermediate state of sorts – must be a blessing in disguise. The minimum you should be able to achieve under those kind of circumstances is incomplete Nirvana (Nirvana with Residue); such a situation is really not that different from the self imposed confinement of the Hermit Buddhas as described in ancient Buddhist, ZEN and Mahayana text.

  5. Craig and Noelle: Thanks for your thoughts. I’m hearing from several people that there are hoops to jump through with regard to the penal system, but many have done so and there is great appreciation by inmates for the opportunity to develop spiritually. This is something to which I’m giving serious consideration.

    Elk: Thanks, also, for writing in with a Mahayana perspective. I take my instruction from the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Canon (Theravada), especially from those suttas through which Gautama specifically taught meditation and ecstatic attainment — we call these suttas the Phala Nikaya, and they can be read here:


    This perspective (which, granted, was quickly replaced by non-ecstatic teachings derived from commentaries written after the Buddha’s time — a long story for another discussion) recognizes that the Buddha culminated his Noble Eightfold Path in terms of ecstatic attainment, and that this “wet” approach was prerequisite for final Nibbana. In other words, he insisted that one must give rise to jhana/samadhi (the terms he used for meditative absorption), and one must gradually traverse the various stages of jhana/samadhi in order to permanently whittle away the fetters that bind us to the wheel of existence.

    I agree with you that solitary confinement over a period of years could, if embraced as such, be seen as a gift of contemplative retreat (as the title of this article suggests), and I do believe that so much meditation would naturally give rise to ecstatic states of being.

  6. Jeffrey — it may happen, dear friend. As you say, it’s a wonder why we haven’t gone this direction already.

  7. I teach meditation in prison. Well worth doing. I’m not sure who gets more out of it; the inmates or me. The depth of their commitment and practice is inspiring.

  8. In your case, Kyra, what was the mechanism for getting started?

  9. The group that Kyra mentioned was started by an inmate who is no longer there. We are volunteer clergy (Buddhist) and have to go through an initial and yearly certification by the prison. The initial certification process takes many months and requires patience and persistence. To get started in an area that does not have a meditation program, I would contact the “Community Partnership Manager” or similar title and/or one of the paid official clergy: Protestant, Catholic, Muslim or Jewish. You can also contact the Assistant Warden in charge of such activities. Keep all communication friendly, simple and straight forward. Hope that helps.

  10. Wow, Clarissa — what a wonderful and helpful answer! This is exactly what I was wondering about. My father (a Presbyterian minister in southern New Mexico) does work in the local jail system, and he, too, said that it is an arduous process — even for someone who has been in the clergy for 30 or 40 years and has contacts all over the place. As you say, you just jump through the hoops and keep smiling, knowing that the bureaucratic maze will work itself through eventually.

  11. Thanks, C 🙂 Well put. –And thanks for getting me into the prison gig.

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