Hard Labor

County Jail No. 3 is a hellhole. Can an ancient, intense form of meditation improve life for the inmates?

The art of Vipassana had been lost in India for 2,000 years when New Delhi's Tihar Jail was at its brutal worst during the latter half of the 20th century. Today's teachers of Vipassana claim that Gautama Buddha discovered the meditation technique in India 500 years before the birth of Christ. But its practice faded after the seventh century. As India embraced Hinduism, Buddhism migrated east, marrying Taoism in China and Shinto in Japan, and landing in its original form in Burma along the way. It was only there that a small, devout band of monks kept Buddha's Vipassana alive through the generations -- until a Burmese businessman, searching for a cure to his stressful life and the migraines that came with it, visited the monastery in the 1950s.

As his headaches disappeared, S. N. Goenka became an ardent believer and practitioner of Vipassana. He moved to India and devoted his life to spreading the meditation practice around the world. Now in his late 70s, Goenka enjoys the same level of reverence from his students as other iconic spiritual teachers, such as the Dalai Lama.

Goenka's boldest attempt to change lives with Vipassana was in Tihar Jail. The prison is the largest in India and has been considered one of the most dangerous in the Third World. The accommodations were abominable: open-air cells in the seasonally frigid northern climate, stone slab beds, standing pools of water acting as bath and toilet. The behavior of inmates -- and guards -- was frightening (as is well documented by human rights groups). There was blackmail and anarchy, torture and killing. Drug cartels, gangs, and assaults were rampant. The inmates ruled themselves in a twisted hierarchy, while the guards played a hand in many of the atrocities.

When Goenka first taught Vipassana to prisoners in the 1970s, he worked at various jails similar to Tihar. At that time, he succeeded only in that none of his students attacked or killed him. (He insisted that no shackles or chains be used in his class, though guards stood by with their guns trained on the meditators.) Unfortunately, the wardens' ongoing corruption limited the effect of Vipassana on India's prison system.

Goenka's jailhouse Vipassana experiment languished for 20 years, until a revolutionary new warden arrived at Tihar, her reform plan backed by the government. Kiran Bedi, the first woman to join the Indian Police Service, rose through the ranks with a no-nonsense resolve and received the Tihar post. Her approach to the mess was to hold the guards accountable for their actions, and to minimize any corruption over which she had control. She began to treat the inmates like human beings -- not caged animals, as earlier wardens had done -- and quickly earned the prisoners' respect. Then she brought back Goenka. With each course, Vipassana appeared to transform the atmosphere of the jail. News reports of the time noted that instead of fighting, inmates planted flowers on the prison grounds. By the mid-1990s, Vipassana was major force at Tihar, being taught to 1,000 inmates at a time.

An Israeli-produced film, Doing Time Doing Vipassana, chronicled the amazing developments, showing hardened criminals weeping in the arms of their teachers -- and even their prison guards -- upon their exit from 10 days of silent meditation. PBS broadcast the documentary in the United States. It was also a hit in theaters, winning the Golden Spire Award at the 1998 San Francisco International Film Festival. Vipassana followers who made pilgrimages to India to study under Goenka began setting up civilian Vipassana retreats in the U.S. -- near Yosemite, in Texas, the Pacific Northwest, and New England -- teaching the technique to capacity crowds. One innovative jail -- the North Rehabilitation Facility near Seattle -- began offering Vipassana to its inmates. As the craze spread, researchers began to wonder whether the technique was indeed revolutionary, or just a rehash of earlier meditation methods.

Alan Marlatt, professor of psychology and director of the Addictive Behavior Research Center at the University of Washington, uses meditation in treating patients. Beyond its relaxing effect, he finds that meditation's emphasis on focusing the mind can be especially helpful in keeping addictive tendencies in check. Marlatt personally tried Transcendental Meditation in the 1970s, when the technique gained popular Western appeal. In the 1980s he studied TM's effects on curbing alcohol abuse among college students, with promising results. Now he is eager to develop that thesis further with the NIH-funded Vipassana study at the North Rehabilitation Facility. Since government data shows prison populations are among the most likely to suffer addictions, the Seattle-area jail is a good testing ground. Marlatt has completed his own Vipassana course and believes it has the potential to be more effective than TM in reducing addiction relapse and criminal recidivism.

TM and Vipassana differ most in intensity. While TM usually involves 20-minute sessions with no set requirements, Vipassana demands a vow of silence for 10 consecutive days, during which practitioners meditate for 12 hours a day. After the course, they are supposed to practice Vipassana for an hour each morning and evening. TM uses a verbal mantra hummed repeatedly as a focus aid; in Vipassana, for the first three days the meditators silently concentrate on breathing, after which all attention turns to bodily sensations. TM brings a surface relaxation, but Vipassana is a much deeper journey into the mind, one that those who've taken the trip say is often tumultuous and draining.

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