Learning to meditate

A piece I wrote recently for the next edition of the Prison Phoenix Trust newsletter http://www.theppt.org.uk and resonant with this recent article in The Guardian on the value of yoga and meditation in prisons https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/sep/11/yoga-prisons-crime-cut-reoffending

"When I was thirteen, my mother learnt to meditate and she changed. She was calmer, more resilient, increasingly willing to learn new things like learning to drive; and, most importantly less likely to go off the handle at something I or my brother had done! I was impressed, so much so that, when she suggested I learnt, I did.

I sat there, twice a day, practising diligently, waiting to notice a similar change, I was going to burst forth from my anxious shyness, bloom in confidence, become popular, shoot to the top of the class; and, win my first significant other!

It did not happen quite like that. I enjoyed the actual practice. I quite enjoyed having a secret since back then you did not really want to tell people you meditated as that was 'weird' and I felt isolated enough as it was. Yet I could not point to any particular change.

Discouraged I told my mother. "Yes," she replied, "but at thirteen you are changing all the time. You may simply not notice it so well." "True," I said, "but I will never forget how you changed"! Meanwhile, something in this encounter suggested I become more attentive to how others were seeing me, perhaps they could be a mirror to help me see myself better. As soon as I did, I began to notice a pattern emerging - a teacher complimented me on a greater willingness to contribute in class, a school friend noticed my co-ordination at table tennis had improved; and, an aunt noticed how much more confident and relaxed I appeared. Each nudge of this kind encouraged me and kept me focused on my practice, moving onward and deeper.

Later when I went to college, I consciously sought out a person, 'a soul friend', who could, in conversation, consciously provide that accompaniment in my spiritual life to help me practice it better, notice things deeper.

Thus, when some ten years later, I met Ann Weatherall, the Prison Phoenix Trust's founder, and became the first employee and co-founder, I immediately recognised the deep value that the correspondence with prisoners could have. The opportunity it allowed both for the instruction and support in the actual practices of yoga and meditation and in helping people trace the unfolding effects, some of which can be vibrant, even dramatic, but others can be quite subtle and gradual and often noticed first by others, in the world's mirroring around us.

I remember one of the first letters I responded to. David started complaining, as I had, that after six weeks meditating nothing much appeared to have happened and then slipped into telling a story about the dinner queue. Someone had barged into him but unusually for him rather than react aggressively, he had responded to calm the situation down with a touch of humour and it had worked out to everyone's satisfaction. I replied wondering whether the two might not, in fact, be related? This triggered just such a recognition in David and he gave a beautiful subsequent account of increasingly finding, for the first time in his life, 'space in mind' between his first reaction, usually tense and aggressive and the possibility of a different, more creative response. My mirroring of his life situation gave him the right distance through which to better see himself.

Meditation and yoga takes us on a wonderful journey of inward exploration, of self-discovery and change; and, it is one that can be greatly deepened if we take a friend along with us who may notice things that we do not yet and can hold up a helpful, quiet mirror to notice where change is happening. It encourages us on our way, points to possible ways forward and deeper and has in it the joy of mutual recognition that, however, step by step, and slow the journey may be, we keep moving onward and upward.

It is perhaps the less obvious aspect of the Trust's work - the volunteers' letter writing in support of a prisoner's practice and journey - but yet a critical service in helping people grow, deepen and change. "


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