The first woman to arrive walked through the door at 8:15, with red pillow marks creasing the right side of her face. She had woken suddenly, she explained, fearing she’d missed the class. For several days preceding, she had been “in the hole” and had worried, there, that she wouldn’t make it back by Sunday to the unit where we meet. Her abrupt waking that morning, I inferred, was ignited by the fuel of the whole week.
This past Sunday morning was my third spent facilitating mindfulness groups at the jail. It was not so easy for me, either, to wake and rise, with earth’s tilt and spin holding the dark in place longer—a striking change, in just one week, that raised my consciousness of the season the way goose-pimpled skin raises hairs in their follicles. Fall is coming, and winter right behind.
It seemed perhaps this shift was felt throughout the jail. When I arrived at the women’s unit, the cafeteria space was sparsely populated, and the bunk beds beyond were full. I organized the photocopies I’d brought while I waited for the group to gather. As I waited, I had the chance to reflect on how I was feeling about the waiting—the quietly rising stress of not having time to get through the day’s agenda, and the discomfort of knowing that group members would need to be woken in order to join me. (The fact that the stress rose quietly represents progress I’ve made.)
My self-noticing was buttressed by a scrap of conversation I’d caught en route to the jail, between On Being’s Krista Tippett and her guest, cellist Yo-Yo Ma. As I drove along the tree-lined highway, beneath a sky cleared by the night’s rain, he commented on how his performance is affected not just by the instrument he’s using, but also by the space he’s playing in, which he considers another instrument. The environment is part of what happens—it has to be. “If you’re going to perform someplace,” he said, “please don’t fall in love with what you’ve constructed.”
My plans for the day involved a discussion of “fight, flight, or freeze” and the maladaptive role that our evolutionary stress response can play in situations that are not actually a matter of life or death. I was looking forward to hearing the inmates’ perspectives and also to communicating my enthusiasm for the power of the brain as demonstrated by Dr. Ellen Langer’s research, gathered in Counterclockwise, and V.S. Ramachandran’s work with those suffering from phantom limb syndrome, as profiled some years back in The New Yorker.
(When I discuss such concepts, I like to ask first if the inmates in my group are familiar with them; if they are, I invite them to share what they know with any others who require explanation—a tried-and-true approach to increasing involvement in the class and also one that demonstrates respect for inmates’ experience and learning, the richness of which many times flies in the face of common assumptions about jails and those who end up there. One young man in a group I guest-led in August, for example, knew about the Ramachandran discovery using mirrors to “restore” the missing limb of an amputee. I loved hearing him tell it and knew I could always restate things if I saw the need, or fill in any gaps after he had finished speaking.)
All this is to say that I had plans, and I thought they were good ones. Our period of discussion was intended to lead into a body scan activity, followed by one involving progressive muscle relaxation, after which I would share handouts for them to keep, detailing the two exercises. I was nervous to bear the responsibility of being the guiding voice during these, but I was eager to offer the women (at 8:00) and the men (at 9:00) potentially new skills to practice in the weeks to come.
Our session didn’t begin until 8:30, though, and even then was missing two members—one who’d been removed from the unit for a spell and not made it back, and one who sent word that she was sick. The call for medication dispensing further interrupted proceedings, as did a brief discussion about the circumstances leading to all this lost time. Body scan? Muscle relaxation? Not a chance. There was barely time to consider what to prioritize in my notes, although I settled quickly on “adaptive” and “maladaptive,” another pair of terms I relish from my social work education.
I admit, I was disappointed and also challenged as to how I’d make up the lost half-hour in our eight-week curriculum, which I’d plotted out so carefully over the course of the summer. But in that first fifteen minutes, when it was just the one young woman and myself, she shared with great excitement that she had been allowed just one book during her time of exile, and that some inspired person in the jail—blessings upon whomever that was—had given her Thich Nhat Hanh’s Anger to take with her. She shared with me that she’s not usually much of a reader but devoured this book and identified deeply with it. “I don’t know,” she said, seeming to marvel at the confluence of events. “This class, this book—there’s just something about mindfulness.”