Hard Labor

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

Intrigued, Meijer took a Vipassana course herself. "I needed a vacation anyway," she says. "I figured it would be about relaxation and rainbows, but there's more to it than just sitting and meditating. Little did I know how much hard work it would be. A lot comes up. You're busy peeling away layers and facing yourself. At the end of the day, you're exhausted."

Meijer personally welcomed the benefits of Vipassana, and persuaded her husband and two adult children to take courses. She felt confident this would be a positive experience for her inmates, yet she still had to field concerns about whether it was an appropriate program for a public institution. "The people who teach Vipassana are adamant that it is nonsectarian. But it can be argued that it looks like a religion," she says. "Rather than fight about it, for those who insist it is a religion, I say, "Fine.' The bottom line is that there have always been lots of religious activities in jails. We have Bible studies; we observe Ramadan. As long as it is voluntary, we do our best to support it. No one has to do Vipassana if they don't want to."

Vipassana's spread to the U.S. isn't as spontaneous as it seems. The technique's champion, S.N. Goenka, has attempted to build a global Vipassana movement. So far he has appointed more than 800 teachers, all of whom have completed lengthy stays in India under his tutelage. They are charged with growing the practice as they run a network of 80 volunteer-run Vipassana centers around the world, where meditation-minded people can learn Buddha's original technique on a donation basis.

Courses at the California retreat near Yosemite at North Fork are always packed. "We think as many people as possible should take this course. It works," says Harry Snyder of Marin, a lawyer, consumer advocate, and Goenka-sanctioned teacher at Yosemite. Snyder stands by Vipassana's grand claims for improving humankind. "How can we have world peace if there is no peace within ourselves?" he asks.

As for the moral code Vipassana advocates, Snyder says those lifestyle adjustments begin to make more sense as one cultivates the meditation. "After a while, you learn that peace of mind is much more enjoyable than excitement. In the real world, we are taught to be excited and we hold that as a great goal," he says. "Once you experience peacefulness, you realize there is more happiness in a balanced sense of feeling." If such a desire for peacefulness could be transmitted to jail inmates, for example, the resulting calm could transform a bedlam like No. 3.

But as Lucia Meijer of the Seattle-area jail pointed out, some worry that Vipassana is a cult. Snyder is quick to explain that Goenka is not a god. Though people respect him for preserving Vipassana, they don't worship him. "Goenka has great charisma and is a wise trainer, but he is not Vipassana," Snyder says. "His students revere him very much, and consider him the person who helped them change their lives. As long as we have Goenka, we will ask his insight. But when he's no longer here, Vipassana will be just as strong."

In addition, Goenka leads no centralized organization. Each Vipassana retreat is a separate nonprofit trust run by an unpaid board of directors. Goenka appoints the teachers, and the teachers control the boards. A volunteer staff of advanced students of Vipassana operate the centers, which provide free food and lodging to meditators. Donations finance everything.

Snyder has been instrumental in the lobbying efforts to bring Vipassana to U.S. jails. "Outside the regular population, this is a logical place where a lot of people are suffering," he says. "Goenka took it up as a challenge: If this really works, prove it with hardened criminals."

But Snyder hedges his bets. "This is not a miracle course," he says. "You can't cure a lifetime of bad stuff with a 10-day course. You can learn what's happening inside you that motivates you to do harmful things. And you can take inspiration from that to begin the process of change."

Wearing an orange jumpsuit with the initials "NRF" emblazoned on the back in tall letters, Michael Lathrop sits cross-legged, eyes closed, quietly meditating on a blue mat. Half a dozen men in the same outfit share the floor with Lathrop in the Vipassana room at the North Rehabilitation Facility near Seattle.

This isn't the first time the 31-year-old crack cocaine addict has turned to meditation to calm his urges to get high. Lathrop had tried Vipassana once before when he discovered it during his fourth stay at NRF. But after his release, he was back in jail in just three months -- he'd gone back on crack and began stealing to support his habit. It was his typical cycle as a chronic re-offender. Yet Lathrop is convinced that Vipassana works, even though his initial success was short-lived. Of all the treatments he has tried over the years, it was the only one that made him feel in control. If he hadn't let his meditation schedule slip, he believes, he wouldn't currently be in jail. Now, he is determined to stick with Vipassana. "It takes me to a place of serenity. Vipassana is a better rush than crack," he says. "Well, my body doesn't always think so. But my mind does now."

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