Oprah Winfrey became so fascinated by the work of psychologist and anthropologist Jenny Phillips that she dedicated a broadcast to her on her “Soul Series”. Jenny has been accompanying individuals on their uphill journey to mental health for years. In 2008, Jenny produced a documentary called “The Dhamma Brothers”, which followed 36 prisoners, some of whom were extremely violent, on a ten day meditation programme which took place in an infamous Alabama jail nicknamed “The House of Pain”. The results were borderline revolutionary.
Jenny has also written a book about her experience called “Letters from the Dhamma Brothers, Meditation Behind Bars,” which includes her interviews of prisoners and accounts of their spiritual journeys. The experience was utterly life changing not only for the prisoners involved in the programme, but for Jenny and the prison correction officers. Proof alone, that a spiritual perspective of life, even in extremely difficult circumstances, can lead any individual, even a criminal, to gain greater compassion and understanding. As Oprah says “there is a transformative power in prayer and meditation”; in any event Jenny’s meditation programme would change the prisoners from their cores.
Jenny perceives these violent men have suffered great misery during their lives. She says “they are human beings looking for a way to find meaning to their lives! Their very lives depend on turning things around!” She insists, “The prison population is highly motivated for change! Indeed the fact that some of these damaged people will never see freedom again has already transformed their existence from within.”
Vispassana meditation is thousands of years old. It is based on a Buddhist technique which Jenny says, “is a challenge, as the individual has to face their most negative thoughts without acting upon them.” In fact, Vispassana consists of meditating ten hours a day, full on. The prisoners were supported in this process of course and could utilize counselling or therapy sessions to open out their consciousness and acquire a deeper understanding of their lives. Jenny believes “to heal you really need to start looking at yourself, to look at things you have not looked into and face the things you did, or have done with more awareness! I do not think our society benefits from a whole subset of the populace being out of control”
Some say that these brutal prisoners created such pain and sorrow in others’ lives they deserve all the punishment they get. But Jenny insists “Prisons are not safe, correction officers are suffering as much as the prisoners!
I think prison staff would be more comfortable if their prison populace were receiving some sort of treatment. If our prison system is going to make them unhappy, when they get back into the streets again they are going to recommit their crimes
One of the prisoners, Ben, was sentenced to three life sentences for murder and attempted murder at the age of 20. Ben says of the programme, “meditation provides a tremendous opportunity to grow and learn. The technique enabled me to see things as they really are!” Ben would now like to speak to the victims’ family to apologize for all that he did and the suffering he caused. Of course this might be impossible, but the fact that he has finally realised the pain and anguish he brought on other human beings was through his own violent actions is a step in the right direction.
Whether we are morally in agreement with such a meditation programme or not, the positive effects achieved have been astounding, for even in the midst of all the horror of prison life, criminals discovered a kind of peace and wisdom within.
Buddhism is known to be a compassionate philosophy that understands the deeper recesses of a man’s being and goes beyond cultural compartmentalization. Whether we are Buddhists or not, if we are spiritual and compassionate there is always a possibility for change no matter what we have done. In fact, poverty and ignorance could be alleviated if we were taught a more “spiritual” perception of life in our educational institutions. The message of Christianity is love, and more compassion emerging. In fact, most religions expect their believers to love others. Empaths would agree with the premise of meditation, prayer and self knowledge, as no psychic, or healer, will judge another’s actions from a moral perspective. They understand we are eternal souls journeying through life and no matter what we have done, we can still transform the worst of us, with the love and dedication in our hearts. In other words, forgiveness is available to us, no matter what religious belief system we nurture, no matter what techniques we use to connect to our spiritual cores, and no matter who we are.