Practice and Work

Meditation Talk on Practice and Work

I started to write this story a few years ago but put it away. Then Ginger brought up the  topic of work and Buddhist practice for talks this summer, and I thought it would be good to do some thinking/writing on this. so here it is.

i don’t refer to myself as a Buddhist in the workplace or talk about meditation. However,  i have great respect and appreciation for Buddhism and its effect on my life, so it is natural that it has influenced my work and insights about work. My work was/is teaching writing. I taught English for twenty some years at the community college. The following is an experience i had when asked to teach a class in a Federal Maximum Security facility.

It was a basic college reading and writing course. The students in their prison greens had committed felonies from armed robbery to murder. The facility had a federal contract with the tribes, so all but one of the nine inmates were Native American. Inmates walked from one room to the next in straight lines and were told to look only at the back of the head of the person in front of them; mannerism and behavior were strictly controlled. This facility was unique in some ways, somewhat of an experiment:  all inmates were under eighteen; there were no drugs, no alcohol, and no t.v. Inmates took courses, had computer time, study time, exercise time, and solitude It was a prison with walls and time.

I came to the situation curious.  Years of  meditating and  writing had intertwined these two processes of working with the mind. I’d done vipassana meditation and studied Buddhism.  I’d kept journals most of my life . ……and then there were all all those  writing classes i’d taught.  Much of what I had read in student assignments at the community college had been about people’s lives: love, travel, children,  pleasure,  but also loss, death, domestic violence, prejudice, harrassment,drugs, alcohol. Writing collects it all.

Natalie Goldberg was encouraged by her Zen teacher Katagiri Roshi to write the book Writing Down the Bones where she explores writing and creativity but also presents the idea of “writing practice” as a Buddhist practice.  She describes a kind of freewriting that we often use in the classroom, a non judgmental flow of words, putting whatever comes to mind on paper or the computer screen—- a way of watching the mind that can gradually lead to understanding or insight.   I think what Natalie and her teacher saw was that this kind of writing is a type of meditation, another way of watching/working with the mind .

Experience had developed my interest in this process. I had seen it over and over in the classroom, students who benefitted from seeing what was on their mind, exploring difficult experiences through writing about them. Before teaching academic writing, i  started my classes with this freewriting and a narrative essay. Often the subjects that came up were then explored and researched.  When the prison facility director talked to me about teaching this course, she said,  “These students won’t want to do any personal writing. They don’t want to think about their experiences; their lives have been painful and it is better if you don’t encourage them to think about them.” I didn’t say anything;  as the teacher, it was  my decision what to teach and how.    I heard from other teachers that prison work can be tricky, a different set of rules and parameters, so I knew I had to be cautious, especially related to sharing writing.  Although these inmates’ lives had been different, perhaps more violent than other students I’d taught, I didn’t want to back away from how I’d been teaching. I wanted the students to trust their experiences, not to be afraid to look at their lives and feelings. Vipassana means to see things as they are. Buddhism has given me the faith to watch my mind, to sit with my life. I needed to carry this faith into my work. Natalie Goldberg also writes about trusting the truth of our experience:  “One of the main aims of writing practice is to learn to trust your own mind and body.”

The first day I worked in this facility, I received a badge, was told to take the staples out of my handouts, and was escorted by an official to the classroom area, doors and gates clanking behind us.  The students, the inmates, filed in with young, smooth faces and slouching gaits. They eyed me with curiosity; .  I found it hard that day and throughout the time I was there to believe these “kids” had committed the crimes they had committed. Looking at a person, we don’t see the history. But then, when you’ve never met someone who has killed a person, you think he or she must be unlike other people you know, unlike yourself.  I came to see what a fine line may separate unimaginable acts of human violence from the every day.

We associate crime and incarceration with punishment and guilt, and  I am not unaware of the horror and ugliness that humans are capable of doing/being.  However, Buddhism  has influenced the way I try to see the world; it teaches perceiving without reacting; it teaches awareness of complexity and the inter-relatedness of experiences. I believe we need to see the people in our world and the world we are continually creating. Concepts of punishment and guilt are complex and can not be separated out from causal conditions, isolated from societal responsibility.

For reading material to start the course, I chose two chapters from the writer Jarvis Jay Masters’ book  Finding Freedom. Masters is an American criminal on death row in San Quentin Prison. As an inmate, Masters became a Buddhist and started writing about his experiences from that perspective. The first chapter was “Sanctuary” where Masters goes into vivid detail about the filth of his cell at San Quentin and how he turned it into his sanctuary. The second chapter was “Scars” where he describes discovering the painful stories of childhood abuse that seemed to be so common among his fellow inmates.  Masters describes how incarcerated men resist feeling or admitting to their own childhood pain. After reading Masters, my students were quick to share how they were drawn to  the realistic way he described his life, his honesty and awareness.

I listened closely to the experiences these students started discussing; I saw how tough they were about their lives, denying any reference to pain. One of the young women loved to talk about how she was addicted to violence, to fighting, how it was “a high like a good drug,” how it felt to be in a stolen car knowing you might get caught. They could talk about police chases or about family violence, drugs, alcohol, but  they seldom used the word “suffering” or referred to pain in a situation, neither theirs nor another’s. They were most comfortable with the subject of violence, so we decided to focus their first writing assignment on experiences with violence.

They began writing in class on shiny new computers barely out of their boxes. As they wrote, guards sat in the room, stood at the door, or hung around outside in the hallway, watching through glass windows. I walked about the room, reading computer screens from behind  shoulders.  Most of the young men had hair cut close; one had blue black hair spiked with jell; the women wore their black hair long and straight; all were dressed in the  same loose fitting, scrub-like clothing.  Each student writer focused on forming the next sentence; some did it rapidly, automatically writing pages; others did it slowly, a word at a time—-  pulled from the mind and spelled out on the screen. The room had the silence of writing, the quiet of being in the mind.

These students were facing their experiences. I wasn’t shocked. I didn’t always correct. I listened without judgment, gave them the time to re-experience events, to sit with what came up.  While they described sometimes brutal scenes of violence, a drug dealer being beaten to a pulp, fights where a family member was beaten unconscious, there also started to appear pain-filled scenes of childhoods. Awareness of their own pain was creeping in the edges of these scenes of violence. One student Travis wrote a personal essay about his family. Travis’ essay begins with this introduction:

When I think about my youth, violence comes up in many different ways: war, gangs, drugs, it’s a hell of a world out there. In my case, however, violence affected me long before I could enter the draft, get ranked into a gang, or use drugs. It was in my own home that I first experienced violence….

From the age of 7 to 13, I was whipped, smacked, or otherwise punished with anything my parents could readily get their hands on. This list included but was not limited to: Hands, fists, feet, belts, boots, shoes, antenna from a television, extension chords, broom sticks, mop sticks a two by four on one occasion, folders,files, food, wooden and steel spoons, VHS cassettes and more I can’t remember at this point. I was pushed, poked, slapped, tripped, belittled, made fun of and embarrassed at home and in public…..

We sat in a circle as Travis read his story about a family where violence seemed the only outlet. The writing ends with a disturbing fight between Travis and his father, and Travis being put in jail. There was silence when Travis completed the reading. The writing was alive, taking us through his experiences.  All of us in the room including the guard felt the pain, were moved by the honesty, were uncomfortable with such an expression of suffering.  After a few moments of silence, several students came forward with their stories. As the weeks continued, many shared more tales of violence and began talking about how these early experiences may have shaped who they had become.

The inmates listened to each other, wrote their stories, capturing the often bloody details. For two weeks, it seemed the room had a particular silence. They commented on this. “everyone is so quiet, but it feels okay.”  One student said, “I sometimes couldn’t sleep; I kept thinking about things at night; now I’m writing what I didn’t want to think about when I couldn’t sleep.” Another talked about”pulling out what was in the mind, putting it on paper, so he could throw it away, be done with it.” Minds haunted by memories, minds not easily settling into peace. The emotional charge around violence shifted, awareness of suffering and pain became more evident in their narratives. One time there was a flood of tears; everyone averted their eyes,  giving the young woman space. A prison rule is you don’t show weakness.

Then the students read Tim O’Brian’s story of killing in Vietnam “The Man I Killed”  and began talking about the violence of war–socially sanctioned violence; most opposed the then current war in Iraq. Travis started exploring his father’s history: immigration and war stories. He wrote about his grandfather beating his father,  his father’s experience with war, PTSD, and then further back his grandfather’s experience with war.  Travis writes:

“My father had been severely traumatized, and his pain was becoming my own. This had probably been passed down through many generations, and nobody ever thought twice about it.”

Sitting sober with experience, the mind gets restless; the mind seeks some resolution. Family, culture, political history had their part—- the inter-relatedness of lives—the chain of causes…..Where does suffering originate?  A person’s suffering may have begun generations before in a war zone or a generation ago in a prejudiced community. Thich Nhat Hanh writes of the complex interconnections we have with our history, our world, our family, and our suffering.

The students were experiencing a retreat in this prison, a withdrawal from the world and time sitting with what comes up in the mind. I think that gradually they were opening to not only their own suffering, but the suffering of others.  One student wrote,   “ Native Americans have had a struggle, but all races did too. ”

The students seemed to be moving from the electrically charged conversations of violence to the more subdued talk of suffering and the causes of suffering.  Watching individuals who do not identify as Buddhists do the work of sitting with mind showed me, what I think are, the deep roots of Buddhist practice, roots that dig into human suffering and connectedness, that  have the potential to grow understanding, compassion, insight. I was gaining a deeper understanding of the First Noble Truth: Suffering. I was watching how opening to one’s own suffering, expressing, exploring this pain was creating a community with greater awareness.

Impermanence, the constantly changing nature of reality, makes clinging to an interpretation of this experience risky.  As quickly as compassion, wisdom, and understanding seem to grow, they can also melt away. The semester ended.  Travis won a  competition for his writing. Several months later, he was released and called to tell me he was free.  In the months that followed, this facility was closed, and most of the students were sent to large federal prisons; occasionally students contact me.  Their lives are difficult, complex like all lives.

While teaching this class opened my eyes to a larger world, it often disturbed my heart and mind. I felt sadness, frustration, anger and helplessness. When we encounter suffering in others, it often triggers our awareness of the complexity of justice, our discontent with the world. In such moments, it is critical to think about how and why we practice.   Thich Nhat Hanh writes  “Many of us practice sitting meditation in order to run away from suffering because sitting meditation provides us with some stillness, some relaxation, and it helps us to leave behind the world of misery and dispute in order for us to experience some joy and some happiness. “ He goes on to say, however,  that the  purpose of meditation is to “use our intelligence and concentration to get insight, to transform the suffering within.”    My understanding of Buddhism is that the goal of practice is to see clearly, to be aware and present. The peace we gain from meditation strengthens our ability to sit with seeing and to make the changes that need to be made in ourselves and in our world. Seeing writing as a complementary practice , I understand more deeply how writing/teaching/classrooms  can work as reflective and contemplative practice, building awareness, understanding, and community.

Shaila Catherine,  a Buddhist scholar and Vipassana teacher  focuses on concentration practice. She writes in detail  about states of meditation as well as the integration of a meditation practice in all aspects of our life.  She says, “Hence, right concentration is not measured by just the depth of the concentrated state, but by the purpose for which it is attained, and the use to which it is put.” Our intention is integral to our practice.  i feel it is important to remind myself that my meditation supports my work  as well as my inner peace.