Practicing the Mindfulness Trainings in Prison

By Mark J. Wilson I am ashamed to admit it but I am a prisoner of the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), serving a life sentence for a murder I committed on June 29, 1987, when I was just eighteen years old. There is nothing I can say to excuse or justify what I did. It was a senseless act. At that point in my life I was a heavy and regular user of methamphetamines. I did not think or care about the rights or feelings of other people. I made countless hurtful, destructive and life-altering choices that affected others. I justified and rational zed every bad thing I chose to do. There came a point when I no longer valued human life.

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Shortly after my arrest, the enormity of what I had done consumed me. I was stricken with guilt and filled with disgust, not only for what I had done, but also for who I had become. I vowed to do everything I possibly could to change my life.

Upon my arrival at prison, I began to do all I could to understand how it became possible for me to take someone's life and how I could now change to become a caring person. I felt the need to try somehow to make up for what I had done and the pain I caused. Fortunately, when I entered the prison system fifteen years ago there were many mental health treatment and education programs available.  I enrolled in them all. This was the beginning of what I later realized would be a life-long journey toward becoming a better, more compassionate person.

In 1998, I was scanning the bookshelf in my housing unit for something to read, when I came upon the book, A Path with Heart, by Jack Kornfield. I could not put it down. This was my first exposure to meditation and to Buddhist practice. I soon found my way to the prison's Buddhist Study Group, and I've been attending ever since.

Within our Sangha, we study books written by many great teachers. Thich Nhat Hanh's  teachings have been a steady presence, and each week throughout 1999 and 2000 we studied his book, For a Future to Be Possible. This was my introduction to the Five Mindfulness Trainings. They resonated with me because they typify the kind of life I strive to live today: a life of love, kindness, compassion, generosity, and deep respect for all life. They represent a life so utterly contrary to the life that led me to take another person's life.

Upon completion or For a Future to Be Possible our Sangha was blessed with the opportunity to receive transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings from Dharma teacher Lyn Fine on October 15, 2000. I jumped at the chance. Each month, following the transmission, our Sangha recites the Trainings together and discusses their application to our lives. Recently, we had the opportunity to renew our commitment to the Trainings by again receiving transmission from Lyn Fine and Jerry Braza.

I'm sure it comes as no surprise that prison is a place where suffering takes many forms and is always present. Because of this, it is also a place where many opportunities exist for prisoners to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings in an effort to ease suffering. I have been greatly blessed during my incarceration with the opportunity to serve the prison community in a variety of capacities, including: inmate legal assistant, facilitator of a Victim Awareness and Empathy Development program, facilitator of an "at risk" youth crime prevention program, and hospice volunteer for terminally ill prisoners. These labors of love allow me to witness suffering from many different perspectives and to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings in an attempt to ease that suffering. I cannot find words to express what a gift that is for me. Easing    someone    else's   suffering brings deep meaning and purpose to my life and in turn, helps ease my own suffering. Though I wish l had learned these lessons fifteen years ago, I see that today my life is dramatically different than it was in 1987. I am deeply grateful to all of the wonderful teachers I have met throughout my incarceration and for their willingness to show me true loving kindness. Thank you one and all!

Mark James Wilson lives in Oregon and practices with his Sangha inside the prison, with the support of the Sangha outside the prison.

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