Hard Labor

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

Another major difference between the two techniques is their origin. TM is steeped in a Hindu tradition, while Vipassana originated with Buddha. "Both are spiritual disciplines, but Buddhism is kind of a psychology, while Hinduism has more of a devotional aspect," Marlatt explains. "In TM, there is no need for insight; you benefit from good karma that is supposedly bestowed upon you. But with Vipassana, change comes about by no accident. You better yourself."

Marlatt and others believe Vipassana could work for prisoners because it connects feelings with actions -- and teaches how to feel without acting. As students of the technique explain, it brings users in tune with the body, so that they learn to feel, interpret, and, most importantly, detach from the sensations that signal undesired behavior. The intense meditation draws even the slightest bodily sensations to the forefront: muscle twitches, pricks and tingles of the skin, even subtle rises or drops in body temperature and blood pressure. Users think about wanting to drink, smoke, or get angry, then learn the sensations associated with those urges -- and how to let them pass. As teachers explain it: If you feel an itch, don't scratch; if your leg cramps, let the pain wax and wane rather than readjusting your position. Students observe their discomfort and understand how it compares to other sensations.

Psychologist George Parks, who is coordinating the NIH study with Marlatt and who also completed a 10-day course, says he was attracted to Vipassana because it relies less on the notion of faith -- or signs from the heavens -- to succeed. "There are more magical forms of Buddhism in Tibet and elsewhere, but the vein that Vipassana comes from -- the original version of Buddhism -- is very scientific and empirical. You won't hear Vipassana teachers like Goenka claim that enlightenment comes from things like the tail of a comet."

But Vipassana does have its quirks, including a strict moral code that shuns both sex outside of a committed relationship and any consumption of alcohol. During the 10-day meditation periods (and the month-long sessions that advanced, civilian students take), sex is forbidden altogether -- as is talking, lying, stealing, killing (even insects), and intoxication. While inmates aren't supposed to be having sex or using drugs in prison, it still happens, just not under Vipassana.

As for integrating the code into life after the course, Parks says that depends on how far a meditator wants to take Vipassana. Goenka and his appointed teachers emphasize Vipassana's practical ability to help handle addiction or manage anger -- without always mentioning that they consider the meditation to have a much grander purpose. "When it comes to spiritual ideas, it is easy to scare people away," Marlatt says. "So there is a bit of a Trojan horse here. The practical side of Vipassana is what you see first. And once you've tried it, you'll want to be drawn in deeper to the path of enlightenment. You can make Vipassana your life. And some do."


Without Vipassana, world peace is not possible. At least that's what the most ardent followers say, those who have trained under Goenka in India. They believe the meditation technique is the answer to all of humankind's ills. Among those listed on the California Vipassana Meditation Center's Web site: poverty, war, disease, terrorism, environmental devastation, and the decline of moral values. The site continues: "Is there a way out of these seemingly insolvable problems? The answer is unequivocally, yes. ... Vipassana meditation is such a way."

Lucia Meijer, the director of the Seattle-area jail that first tried Vipassana in the U.S., laughs as she reviews the tall order. "I can't speak to the global aspirations of Vipassana. I am not a New Age devotee; I do not run with the wolves," she says. "I'm just trying to assist one person at a time in this jail with their addictions, dysfunction, and agony so they can become law-abiding individuals and not re-offend. Ultimately, I would hope that means less trouble for the rest of us."

Since Meijer's facility specializes in rehabilitation (as opposed to other jails, which focus more on incarceration), she has tried a number of innovative programs over the years. "As someone responsible for returning offenders in a more wholesome state than they went in, you want them to shape up morally, develop self-discipline, and change their habitual thinking and behavior patterns," she says. "Vipassana fits the bill."

But that endorsement comes after three years of inmate involvement with the meditation. Meijer was skeptical at first, when a staff member who practiced Vipassana suggested her jail try it. "There were lots of concerns," she says. "For one, this comes out of another culture; people might fear it is a cult. Here we are isolating people for 10 days -- no one can see them, [and] they aren't allowed to talk. I can imagine someone rightfully wondering, "Oh my God, what are you doing to them?'"

No matter how inspiring the reports of Vipassana's success in Indian jails, Meijer's eventual enthusiasm was tempered by unavoidable legal, safety, and logistical matters. "The difference in India is that a warden has a far more free hand to impose their will. They don't have the ACLU, labor unions, or the press to contend with," she says. "We need to pay careful attention to inmate rights. No incentives or coercion. No blurring of professional boundaries. I just cringe when I see that film showing prisoners falling into the arms of their guards in India. You never, ever want to see that happen in any American prison."

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