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The Home of Evolutioneers

The Radical Spirituality of Generation X, Part 12: Meditation in Juvenile Hall

The first night, we walked through three locked gates and a quad to arrive in an all-purpose room that would serve as a meditation hall. As we put the chairs in a circle, a worker asked, “We got some kids who misbehaved and are in lock-down. You want them in here?” “Sure,” we responded. “Also, Johnny is planning on coming. He has the attention span of a fly. You sure you want him in here?” “Yes, of course.”

Ten boys and girls finally meandered through the door. Some had tattoos, others had funky hair styles, and all had a particular toughness about them. The kids were in for everything from skipping school to murder. We introduced ourselves, went over the guidelines of the class, talked about respect, and then spoke in simple terms about meditation — finding what is true, being with the moment as it is, developing mindfulness. We then went around and asked what they wanted out of the class. “An ability to levitate,” said the first kid. Everyone laughed. Most talked about wanting to better control their anger. Juan leaned back in his chair and announced, “I love two things in life: marijuana and violence. But violence gets me into trouble. I know when I get out of here it will be easy to get back in a gang and start busting people up. I don’t want to do that anymore.” Anger thus became the primary theme of the class.

We guided them in a silent mindfulness of breathing meditation. No one walked out, yelled, or made too many wise cracks. A decent start. Johnny, with the fly’s attention span, nervously shook his leg the entire time, but hung in there. Most of the kids kept their eyes closed and did their best. Sitting still was probably the hardest activity many had ever done.

Next we conducted a short lovingkindness meditation, focusing on sending love to oneself then spreading it out into the world. This seemed much easier. Since this was the first class, we did not ask for comments about their experiences. We wanted to let the kids keep the experience to themselves. However, after the lovingkindness meditation, Audrey looked up and spontaneously said, “That was tight.” “You mean you were tense?” I inquired. “No, it was tight. That means it was good; it was cool.” “Oh.”

Our class certainly had its difficult moments. Johnny, in particular, made a lot of wise cracks and disrupted the group occasionally, and I was not experienced in dealing with such behavior in a meditation class. Finally, Audrey had all she could take of Johnny's antics. During one supposedly silent meditation, Johnny decided to eat an orange loudly. I thought of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh and his tangerine meditation and said nothing, but Audrey was fuming. After the meditation, she glared at him across the room. Then forcefully shaking her finger at him, she shouted, “He’s fucking up my meditation.” I was dumbfounded. I had never previously heard the F-word and the M-word used in the same sentence. No one had ever cussed or shouted in any meditation group I had been in. Should I get mad at her for cussing or at him for making noise? I did the only thing I could think of at the time: sat there with my mouth open. Audrey gave him an ultimatum: “Fucking take this seriously or else fucking leave.” He left. A great weight lifted from the class. Everyone seemed much more committed and focused. I was confused by this, though happy that Audrey cared enough about her meditation to defend her right to sit quietly.

Another night when I led a meditation on kindness, I asked everybody to remember a time when someone was kind to them. "What did it feel like to receive this kindness? Can you feel it in your body?” Then, I asked them to remember a time when they were kind to someone else, even if it was something really small. Next, I said to send this kindness to all the people in the room, then to others outside.

Afterwards, we asked them how it was. "Could you bring to mind times you both received and gave kindness?” One guy answered, "I could picture it. For the first one, I thought of my mom, who has always stood by my side through my court appearances. She always shows up to court.” He lowered his head, a bit shy. "Then for the other one, I remembered how I used to let my homeboys sneak into my house and sleep when they needed a place to crash. Even if everyone else was on their case, I would let them in and feed them.” Then he looked to the other guys in the room, first at a guy across from him. "I wished you happiness and hoped you would get to see your child soon.” Turning to another he said, "I wished that your court appearance next week goes well.” And to another, “I wished that your relationship with your parents improves.” Around the room he went. All the other kids seemed to take in the good wishes. The room was filled with a feeling of trust and support.

The classes were rarely what I expected. Once during guided meditation, we encouraged them to see their thoughts arising and passing away as if watching train cars pass by. After the meditation, Juan said, “That was great. I was just sitting there smoking a joint and watching a train go by.” Not exactly what I had in mind, but what do you say? Strangely, Juan seemed to get more out of the classes than anyone else and expressed the desire to continue the practice after he got released. He had spoken about the benefits he was receiving and was very curious about books and practice centers in the world beyond juvenile hall. He seemed touched by the practice, and I was happy and excited for him.

Later in the year, though, I was saddened to see Juan walking through the hallway in the juvenile hall. Back behind bars. Perhaps, though, he might be interested in coming to the meditation class that evening. I said "hello" and invited him to the class. "Man, not tonight," he said, lowering his head. "Too much is going on. I recently got my girlfriend pregnant, and I have been charged with attempted murder.” He turned away.

"Attempted murder!" I thought to myself. "I teach you to meditate, then you go and try to kill someone! What on earth were you thinking? Go back to your breath, for crying out loud. Soften, and calm yourself, damn it!” But at that moment, I was the one who needed to calm myself. I tried to soften around my reaction to Juan's words. The last thing he needed was for me to vocalize such thoughts, so I told him that I understood and would look forward to seeing him the following week.

Juan's news made me question the reason I was showing up at the hall each week. I wanted to make a difference to the kids, to teach them skills that would help calm their bodies and focus their minds. I wanted to show them an alternative to drugs and violence. But I realized that I had presumed an unstated agreement: I will show up if you agree to act in a certain way. Juan had broken the agreement, and my first impulse was to give up the classes all together.

Looking more deeply, I saw that he forced me to explore my intentions in working with this group of kids and raised some basic questions for me about meditation practice. What is the heart of the practice anyhow? Am I offering this heart to these kids or just teaching meditation techniques? How do we share our practice with those who are not seeking it- our judgmental aunt, our hyperactive child, our depressed neighbor, or a tough kid at juvenile hall? A Zen master gives students paradoxical questions called koans on which to meditate, eventually leading to a flash of enlightened understanding. Questions like these continue to serve as my koans.

It's now been almost six years since I taught those first classes in juvenile hall. Through the Lineage Project, a nonprofit I started with my friend, Andrew Getz, I currently teach about eight classes a week for incarcerated teens in New York City. These facilities hold the toughest, poorest, and most troublesome teens of all the boroughs. Many of them are in for very serious offenses, like armed robbery, attempted murder, and murder. Classes over these years have gotten easier as more and more of the kids have become accustomed to our program. The kids who end up in juvenile hall come in with enormous stress, and both desperately want help and are extremely suspicious of everybody. Whenever I start a new class, there is usually a “feel out” stage. This involves the kids insulting both the practices and me, then watching how I respond. “You ever been told you look like that guy from Ghostbusters, Egon? Nah, you look like slinky man. This meditation stuff is dumb. People really like to do this? I can’t believe how stupid this stuff is.” Sometimes these comments express legitimate doubt about the class, but mainly they are putting me through an initiation. Can I be insulted? How do I respond when the practices I hold to dearly are criticized? Their central question seems to be, “Do I care about them more than I care about them doing meditation or yoga? Where is my true commitment?"

I have also gone from introducing practices like meditation and yoga as something new and different to something that in some ways they already know and do. I often ask them, "What is the difference between meditation and 'chilling'?" After I ask this, I often follow it up with, “What is the opposite of chill?” Most the kids respond with the word “hyped.” I then ask, “Would people rather be chill or hyped?” Everyone agrees that people would rather be chill. So this is our common ground, our common denominator — no matter our age or skin color. Then the question is, “How do we help each other reach this goal? And how do we live in a way that makes it better for others, to create less pain both for ourselves and others?”

I've also learned that how I relate to the guard as I enter the center is as important as whatever I say in the class. The same is true with how I relate to the other staff and to the kids who are not into the practices. Do I relate to the kids who are not into it with frustration and anger, or is there a larger teaching here? A number of months ago a kid named Jamal used to come to my class every week. Though he showed up each week, he never really tried to do the yoga, and during the meditation, he would keep his eyes open and look around like he was bored. However, after the class, he always gave me a big hug and said thank you. I later learned that he was on trial for a gang related murder. I started to get frustrated with Jamal because I thought, “Why keep coming to this class if you are not interested in the meditation or yoga? What’s your problem?”

It then hit me one day: he didn’t come to the class for meditation or yoga; he came for a hug. He did not have the problem. I did. It might be the only hug he got all week. If he was not being disruptive, why not come to the class for a hug? I began to see how limited my views were of how love should be expressed. Gradually Jamal was able to close his eyes for a short time during the meditation, and he seemed a little more engaged in the yoga. But if my devotion was strictly on youth doing meditation or yoga, I would have given up on Jamal a long time ago. I began to see how I could use anything, even spiritual practices, as another thing for the kids to feel hard on themselves about instead of an expression of care and compassion for themselves. While certain guidelines need to be followed in class and I sometimes ask disruptive students to leave, they need to feel a genuine care from me or nothing is going to work. If my care and devotion is not on them as person, then I’m just one other person with an agenda for them, I’m just another person trying to fix them, and they want no part of it.

I've also realized that there is a level of compassion and love underneath their tough exterior frames that is amazing. During a recent class, we got in a heated discussion about whether it is a good thing to help people. Several people thought this was a good idea, but a kid named Michael did not want to hear it. "I know it don’t work to help people," he said, sitting up in his chair and speaking with great sadness and intensity. "You know why I’m in here. I’m in here ‘cause I tried to help out a friend. My friend, who is like a brother to me, tells me that his momma just got laid off and that he wants my help getting them rent money. He wanted me to rob this store with him. I knew it wasn’t right, but I wanted to help my friend and his family so I told him that I would do anything he wanted. And I knew I was putting my life on the line for him. Anytime you do a robbery, you know your putting your life on the line, but I was ready to do it. So we both got guns and walked in the store. We pulled out our guns and said give us the money. Then the manager comes from the back of the store with a fuckin’ shotgun, pointing right at us. I was like Shit! I put down my gun and put my hands in the air, but my friend takes off. He left me there standing. So now I’m probably going to do several years and all I was doing was helping out my friend." He was right at the edge of tears. I was speechless. I looked around and everyone seemed to relate to the pain of thinking that you are helping out a friend, and that friend leaving you, and you having to do the time.

A kid then asked, "Where is your friend now?"

"He’s on the streets," said Michael.

"I would pop that mother fucker if I was you."

"I ain’t going to pop him. He is like a brother."

On one hand, Michael made a very bad decision that could have resulted in someone getting hurt or killed. On the other hand, he had enormous compassion for his friend's situation and great courage to put his life on the line to help out his friend. Many of the youth like him have such love that yearns to expressed but too often gets acted out in painful ways, because the situation they are in offers them few alternatives. While they are responsible for their actions, we all share some responsibility for the situation. If I had grown up in the conditions of the kids with single or no parents, crime-ridden communities, and intense poverty, I would have likely resorted to some of the same crimes. It's a system in which we all play a part. We are all a part of this problem and the solution.

We will now spend roughly $150,000 in two years locking Michael up, when all he and his friend needed was $200 to cover rent. But as kids from the inner city, they had few other options. He will likely come out after his time with few skills, more anger, and with a resolve to never try to help anyone ever again. Our challenge should not be just to punish youth, but to give them a bigger challenge, to show ways they can use their natural caring for community, which often gets played out in gangs, and their desire for altered states, which often gets played out only through drugs, in a way that truly benefits the world. Too often we give young people the vision of "stay out of trouble" when we need to help them make "good trouble," to use that rebellion to make important changes in our society. The greatest sadness I see on boy's faces is when they find out that their kid brother has been arrested. They can suffer for their actions, but when they realize that their actions and example helped lead to the suffering of the person they should be helping, they can't hold back the sadness. The care they have is enormous yet so rarely recognized or acknowledged.

The challenge seems to be making the space where the deeper care and longing for meaning can come forth. For some youth they say the only time they feel truly alive is when they are running from the cops or doing a drug deal. Telling them not to do crime is like telling them not to feel fully alive. Instead we need to find other ways to meet their need for aliveness and meaning. How we begin to address these issues — whether through meditation, nature walks, singing, or something altogether unique — is not so important, but that the subject is addressed and that space is available for youth to openly explore their inner world . . . this is paramount. We need to give them other ways to feel the aliveness that they seek. As one guy said after a meditation, "That was weird. I usually only feel this good when I am doing something illegal!"

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Soren Gordhamer is author of Meetings With Mentors (Hanford Mead, 1995) and a meditation book for young adults called Just Say OM! (Adams Media, 2001). He is Co-Founder of the Lineage Project, a program of the Tides Center, focused on offering awareness practices like meditation and yoga to incarcerated teens. He is currently Executive Director of Lineage Project East, and teaches meditation at numerous places in New York City, including the New York City Juvenile Justice System.

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Every week we will post another article on generation X spirituality from the book Radical Spirit. For more articles and more about Evolution Spirituality and who we are, go to universespirit.org

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