Meditation at Juvenile Hall

By Soren Gordhamer t took eight months to begin meditation classes at the local Juvenile Hall-seven months of talking about it and one month of letters, phone calls, and meetings with the director. The director was not sure the kids would go for it. He said if we expected them to sit down, cross their legs, and watch their breath for forty-five minutes, we were mistaken. My co-leader was a former resident of the hall and works as a drug rehabilitation counselor with a similar population. He said, "We could teach basket weaving and if we are genuine, they will go for it. They watch you, not what you say." The director gave us a more clear warning: "You need to be a master of your art. If you show signs of weakness or doubt, they will see it and blow you away. They won't hold back." I was not sure what to expect.

The first night, we walked through three locked gates and a quad to arrive in an all-purpose room which would serve as a meditation hall. As we put the chairs in a circle, a worker asked, "We got some kids who misbehaved and are in lock-down. You want them in here?" "Sure," we responded. "Also, Johnny is planning on coming. He has the attention span of a fly. You sure you want him in here?" "Yes, of course."

Ten boys and girls finally meandered through the door. They were primarily between the ages of 14 and 16 with about an equal number of boys and girls. Some had tattoos, others had funky hair styles, and all had a particular toughness about them. We introduced ourselves, went over the guidelines of the class, talked about respect, and then spoke in simple terms about meditation-finding what is true, being with the moment as it is, developing mindfulness. We then went around and asked what they wanted out of the class.

"An ability to levitate," said the first kid. Everyone laughed. Most of the others talked about wanting to better control their anger. Juan sat back in his chair and announced, "I love two things in life: marijuana and violence. But violence gets me into trouble. I know when I get out of here it will be easy to get back in a gang and start busting people up. I don't want to do that anymore." Anger was the primary theme of the class. We led them in a guided silent mindfulness of breathing meditation which went fairly well. No one walked out, yelled, or made too many wise cracks. Johnny, with the short attention span, nervously shook his leg the entire time, but hung in there. Most of the kids kept their eyes closed and did their best. For many, sitting still is probably the hardest thing to do.

Next we conducted a short lovingkindness meditation, focusing on sending love to oneself then spreading it out into the world. This seemed much easier. Since this was the first class we did not ask for comments about their experiences. We wanted to let the kids keep the experience to themselves. However, after the lovingkindness meditation, Audrey looked up and spontaneously said, "That was tight." "You mean you were tense?" I inquired, uncertain what she meant. "No, it was tight. That means it was good; it was cool." "Oh."

In the following five classes, the kids taught me a great deal. They had seen and experienced intense suffering and they had deep questions. Our class had its difficult moments, however. Johnny, in particular, made a lot of wise cracks and disrupted the group occasionally. I was not experienced in dealing with such behavior in a meditation class. Finally, Audrey had all she could take. During one supposedly silent meditation, Johnny decided to eat an orange loudly. I thought of Thay's tangerine meditation and said nothing, but Audrey was fuming. After the meditation, she pointed at him across the room and shouted, "He's f-ing up my meditation." I was dumbfounded. I had never heard the F-word and the M-word used in the same sentence. No one had ever cussed or shouted in any meditation group I had been in. Should I get mad at her for cussing or at him for making noise? I did the only thing I could think of at the time: sat there with my mouth open. The girl gave him an ultimatum: "F-ing take this seriously or else f-ing leave." He left. A great weight lifted from the class. Everyone seemed much more committed and focused. Something had cleared. I was confused by this. While much of their cussing was hard to take, there was a directness about these kids that I liked and I was happy that Audrey cared enough about her meditation to defend her right to sit quietly.

The classes were rarely what I expected. Once during guided meditation, we encouraged them to see their thoughts arising and passing away as if watching train cars pass by. After the meditation, Juan said, "That was great. I was just sitting there smoking a joint and watching a train go by." Not exactly what I had in mind, but what do you say? Strangely, Juan seemed to get more out of the classes than anyone else and expressed the desire to continue the practice after he got released.

During these classes, I found myself listening much more than speaking. I knew if we were going to work together, we needed to trust one another and listening develops trust. I needed to learn about their world-where they came from, what issues were central in their life, what struggles they were facing . I had gone in thinking that I was going to "lead" a meditation class. I did guide the meditations, but the rest of the time I felt like I was in "Youth Issues 101." I learned about the medications they were taking, what life was like in the hall, whose parents had disowned them, how it was to be locked up.

The story for many youth today is not a happy one. The rate of suicide in American adolescents has quadrupled since 1980. Violent crime among juveniles has quadrupled in the last 25 years. Weapons offenses for children ages 10 to 17 have doubled in the last decade. Kids are being incarcerated at younger and younger ages. Youth are raised thinking that money is everything and it does not matter how one goes about getting it. In a June 1997 Time Magazine poll, 33% of Generation Xers agreed with the statement 'The only measure of success is money."

Youth today face gangs, violence, and drug addiction problems without easy answers. Any remedy must include elders who are willing to make themselves available. We do not need the greatest wisdom or expertise, but we do need to show up. We need the passion and determination of youth, but for youth to use these energies wisely, they need the help of elders. For many youth, elders are nowhere to be found. Among the 1.4 million people incarcerated for substance abuse offenses are parents of 2.4 million children. Dharma centers can playa central role in offering alternative ways to explore one's mind, body, and heart, but youth must first feel invited and welcomed.

Taiy has said certain problems are too big for one person and must be addressed by the entire community. The challenges and struggles of youth are such issues. The current trend is to either lock up youth or think their every need will be satisfied by a new technology, without ever addressing their inner life or exploring ethics. Dharma practice can help provide ways to nurture the inner life and an outer sense of responsibility. There are no easy answers as to how mindfulness practice can be offered so that it speaks to and benefits challenging populations, such as youth at Juvenile Hall, but any creative effort made with joy and mindfulness has a good chance.

Soren Gordhamer is working on a meditation book directed to young adults. He has taught meditation for teens through Spirit Rock Center, Kaiser Hospital, and at Juvenile Halls. He lives in Soquel, California.

PDF of this article