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Sep 20
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Taking a Shot at Meditation

Meditation from shutterstock http-::www.shutterstock.com:pic.mhtml?id=24229588&src=idReport from the Prison Mindfulness Institute
article by Kate Crisp

In a distant place, far, far away from the elegant world of Shambhala Centers, almond milk latte’s at Whole Foods, and lightning bugs by campfires, is the land of juvenile detention. Incomprehensible to most citizens, unless of course you are one of the millions in the U.S. who have been a resident of one of these places.

On a recent Thursday, I ventured again into the local male juvie prison to teach our weekly PMI “mindfulness & emotional intelligence” class. These classes with the kids are always challenging, and they prove to be a constant and rich learning experience for us as facilitators. There doesn’t appear to be any one-size-fits-all formula for how to facilitate these classes or work with the kids; we generally just take in that week’s curriculum topic, some ideas for possible meditation sessions, and then see what’s going on in the room and adjust.

There are always new kids each week and then a few who return over and over who appear to really want to learn (albeit guardedly). This week four young men attended the class, two regulars, and two new participants. I asked the new guys what they knew about meditation or mindfulness:

“Nothing, I guess it makes you less stressed?” the first guy said.

“Helps with anger,” said the second. Neither looked very excited about either of these topics.

I asked the other two what they thought of meditation, since they’d been coming to the class for some time, and both replied too quietly for me to hear. I asked them to repeat and they mumbled something like “It’s okay” hesitantly. There is always a strong flavor in the room of, “How am I gonna look to the other guys?” So mumbling is a norm.

First I led them in a very simple body scan and basic breath awareness meditation. They all seemed to settle into it quite well, and appeared somewhat calm when we finished the short session. This is often not the case. Jittering legs, shifting eyes, slumping over on the desk, giggling, talking, are all also the norm.

I then gave a one or two minute “Intro,” talking about what meditation is and isn’t, using sports analogies and referring to famous folk in basketball and other realms who meditate. I asked them if they had trouble sleeping — all said “Yes!”. I told them this tool would help, explaining that, like body-building, this practice needed “reps” for the effects to show up. They all seemed to get this. This whole “lecture” part took less than 5 minutes.

Then I asked for questions and it opened up into dialogue. First the new guy (the one who said he thought meditation was for anger) said:

“So you said this meditation thing would make us more focused right?”


“So does that mean if you were a cop or a soldier then you could be really focused and shoot someone more accurately? I mean you talked about basketball ‘taking a shot’- so what about really taking a shot?”

At this point I was making a mental note to cut out the “basketball shot” reference in the future. I said, “So, is that what you are interested in? Being able to shoot someone more accurately?”

“Naaaaa, I’m not into shooting, I just wondered if this will make cops more able to shoot people better?”

I talked about how mindfulness meditation would not only help you be more focused and alert, but also opens us up to feeling and awareness. I suggested that becoming more aware of our own feelings and reactions will help us make better choices that wouldn’t create harm or make trouble for us or others.

They all seemed to agree that this made sense. I stressed again that while there are immediate benefits to practicing meditation, you actually have to practice to gain skills and create lasting impacts, just like with any other activity in life.

Then one kid said, “I need something to help with anxiety, I’m anxious all the time in here.”

I led them in a meditation for anxiety where we take a longer count breath on the exhale breathing through pursed lips as if through a straw, and a shorter breath through the nose on the inhale. This time I added slightly holding the breath on the in-breath, a slight pause, then taking a long out-breath. They all seemed to be able to accomplish that, except for one kid who was by then laying on top of the desk.

I asked how they felt, and most reported that they were “sleepy” and then all said they actually needed some sleep. I suggested they might remember this tool to help them sleep at night, asking them if they could see how it calmed down anxious thoughts. They all agreed that even a few short minutes helped.

Then one kid pipes up: “Yeah, so that longer out-breath thing with holding your breath first?”


“…Well that’s how they train snipers to be able to shoot someone.”

Okay then, back to the topic of the day!

Again I made a mental note to drop the “breath-holding” technique. So I agreed with him, “Yes, that’s how they train snipers, so is that what you’d like to do? Be a sniper?” This kid looks to be about 15, long hippy-ish hair, he comes to the class a lot and appears to be a very mellow guy who always seems a bit spaced out.

He laughs (first time he’s ever laughed) and says “Noooo!”

I attempt to talk a bit about how mindfulness might lead to kindness (words like “compassion” don’t generally fly far in this group). By clearly seeing that other people are people who might have kids, moms, family (all these kids always talk about how much they miss their families), that one might be less likely to shoot someone if you could see other people as human beings just like you, with families who love them.

They didn’t appear to be following my logic much, although they did agree that shooting generally does not create a good ending. A few were there to testify. But a few also clung to the position that, “I gotta have a gun to defend myself.” I didn’t try to talk them out of this. I simply said something like “I hear ya, you need to stay safe.” They nodded.

Then one kid interrupts me saying, “Okay, so you look like someone who could hypnotize us, can you do that? Can you wave something on a string and hypnotize us?”

They all got enthusiastic about this idea. “Yeah, hypnotize us!”

I said, “I’m not a hypnotist. But what do you want to be hypnotized for? To quit smoking…?”

“I dunno, just sounds fun.” None of them seemed to have any idea what they wanted to achieve with a hypnosis session. They just wanted to see me do it, they said.

Then the kid who was making the initial inquiries about meditation for being a “better shot” says, “Well, I definitely want to be hypnotized so that I can learn remorse.”

“Remorse?” I said, a bit surprised (I don’t usually hear this sort of thing in juvie).

“Yeah, I’d like to feel some remorse for the people I’ve done stuff to.”

“That’s a very cool thing that you want to learn remorse. So if you did something that hurt your sister, you are telling me you feel nothing?”

“Naw, I wouldn’t hurt my sister, I’m talking about people I don’t know. I don’t care about them and feel no remorse. I think those people are all liars and full of BS anyway and I don’t believe a word they say.”

“So what do you mean by ‘full of BS?’ Give me an example,” I ask.

“So you know if a girl comes up and tells me she has cancer, I’ll never believe her, I know she’s just sayin’ that to get attention.”

“So, you’d like it if people were more honest about what they want?” He said “Naaa, I just want that kinda girl to shut up.”

Rather than continue on that track, I decided to ask them about something more in the here and now:
“Give me an example of something in here, in this place, this week, where you don’t believe what people are saying.”

The whole room got animated again and they all yelled, “Tell her that one!”

“Oh yeah, so in here everyone says “I’ve been shot’ and I don’t believe any of them have been shot, they’re all a bunch of liars!”

“You would really like it if people told the truth?”

He wasn’t listening at all at that point and they were all laughing and saying, “Yeah, YEAH! What a bunch of liars!”

And one kid says laughingly to me:
“So, have YOU been shot?”

“Oh yeah, I’ve been shot many times!” (Laughing). They all seemed to find this highly amusing.

Then I did say, “Well, in reality I was in a situation once where I could have been shot.”

They were all super excited to hear this story. The “focus” was happening now! So I very briefly told them about the time (in the olden days) when I was in a record store and some guys came in to rob it. When one guy held a gun to my head I started screaming and ran.

They all agreed I was an idiot and that I probably should have been shot.

“So why didn’t the guy shoot you – was he ‘meditating’?” Mister Jokester.

“No, what I saw was that he was scared.”

I decided to once again try to get off this topic and moved to doing some “hookups” from Brain Gym for calming anxiety. None of them could actually do the hook ups since their shoulders were all too tight. (Hook ups involve crossing arms and then bending arms at the elbow.) I adjusted that quickly and moved it to simply crossing the legs and folding the arms across the chest and doing the Peter Levine-suggested tapping on alternate arms. They all seemed to like doing that and one guy yelled out, “HEY, it works!”

It was time to end the class and I said, “Any last questions?”

“So, do you have a gun?”

OMG, the theme that never ends! Here we go again! I replied, “Nooooo, I don’t have a gun, I’m for nonviolence.”

“So you mean to tell me that if someone is comin’ in your house to rob you, you won’t shoot them?”

“No, I won’t.”


Then one kid laughs and says, “So where ya live?”

And a big laugh was had by all.

And as always, I left the class with the distinct impression that the most important thing that happened during the class was that these young men had the experience of someone simply caring enough to come spend some time with them. I also left as usual with a mixture of heartbreak and hope, heartbreak for the tough situation these kids are in and what may be a bleak future for some and hope that somehow we are touching and affirming the obvious intelligence and vulnerability underneath all their bravado in ways that may eventually lead them in a new and healthier direction.

Learn more about the Prison Mindfulness Institute by clicking here.

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8 responses to “ Taking a Shot at Meditation ”
  1. I got several good ideas to use in my juvie classes:

    1. The blowing breathing , esp for sleep.

    2. Let them know that the good vibes from their meditation will automatically go to their fam and also do a “let’s send the good vibes” thing too, like I guess the loving kindness meditation is.

    3. Let them know as kindness grows so will remorse and that it is a good thing on our healing path.

    4. Find out more about the brain gym.

  2. Thanks Kate. I am leading mindfulness practices at our County Jail and draw inspiration from your article and your willingness to show up and be present. It’s like planting a seed. Some days nothing; some days a sweet, green tendril.

  3. Linda V. Lewis
    Sep 22, 2014

    Such a brave + honest slice in the life of your work! I’ll bet the boys at least try the technique to help them sleep, and as you said, it takes practice. Perhaps this will translate into practicing during the day to cut through some anxiety. In any case, you are a curious, non-violent example to them, and in future meetings that theme may arise again. Perhaps down the line a brief story of the ultimate success of both Gandhi + Martin Luther King, Jr. might inspire them. Bravo for what you are already doing!

  4. Hey Kate – what a great story. I like thinking of you there, working with those beings and with your own mind. I’ll be in touch soon.

  5. Cary Weiner
    Sep 22, 2014

    Thank you for your work and for sharing this story.

  6. Tracy steele
    Sep 22, 2014

    Thanks for the story Kate.. Such a heartfelt example of authentic presence.

  7. L.Benzerdjeb
    Sep 22, 2014

    Alle Achtung!
    I take my hat off to you!

  8. Trime Persinger
    Sep 20, 2014

    What a great story, Kate. Thank you for sharing this. I do believe that you are making a difference in the way that you say, by showing up in a caring way. You gave these youths space to be themselves. You did not judge them. Joining with them in humor, wisdom, and caring is a powerful prescription for helping people to discover their own basic goodness. It’s a long road for some, but you helped them take a step.

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