In Juvenile Hall

Tonight I teach my fourth class at a juvenile hall in New York City. We hold the class in a small chapel where there is just enough room for about five or six kids to do yoga. I have been doing smaller classes recently, as they are more manageable. A few weeks ago, in a class for about 15 girls, a fight almost broke out. A chair flew across the room and it was utter anarchy for at least five minutes while the staff tried to regain control. It could have easily turned into World Championship Wrestling III. I stood there, dazed. I’m still not sure what set it off. Soon there were girls standing chest-to-chest, name calling, and threats of violence. Finally, the chaos subsided, luckily with no punches thrown. All this in the middle of my “stress reduction” class.

The juvenile hall I teach in tonight does not mix kids from different units for fear (or the reality) of gang violence, so I get about four guys from one unit in one class and four girls in another class. These classes are smaller than I’m used to, but the population of youth this night is fairly typical. Sixteen-year-old Russell, who is “affiliated” with the Crips gang, has been in and out (mostly in) of juvenile hall since he was twelve. He is soft-spoken and uses as few words as possible. His biggest pain is that his younger brother, now 12, was recently locked up at another facility. Tyrone, a 15-year-old male, found out two weeks ago that his brother was shot in the back and killed; his death is probably gang-related. Tyrone is still coming to terms with it. He hopes to get out soon and “get a good job.” Javier, who is in for drug-related crimes, says that he watched his father do drugs as he was growing up and started himself a few years ago, not thinking much about it. He recently found out that several friends died in drug- and gang-related activity. He hates being in juvenile hall, but says he is safer here than on the streets and now has a better chance of reaching age 18 alive. Lorraine is a 15-year-old girl who can look incredibly tough one moment and endearingly sweet the next. There is also an Indian girl with a beautiful presence about her. She has a Hindi name, which (ironically) was the name of her father’s ex-girlfriend. I ask her what her name means and she asks me if I can find out for her. A number of the kids have court dates next week. Few of them know how long they will be here. A typical juvenile hall class.

So here we are together. Them and me, the only white person present. I clearly appear out of place, like I’m in some strange Hollywood sitcom. Picture this: skinny, white, middle-class guy with glasses, kind of New-Agey, goes to teach meditation and yoga in juvenile hall. We’ll stage it in New York City and it will be like these two worlds colliding. He’ll actually try to get these kids to sit quietly and meditate. Ha, ha, ha. In some shows, the kids will really like it, but as soon as the guy gets comfortable, they will lay into him. All the time he is trying to make sense of them, they are trying to make sense of him. It will air in the slot between Law & Order and The Simpsons.

Tonight we sit in a cold, dark room that sometimes serves as a chapel. We do yoga together to loosen some of the grief and pain kept in the body. We then sit together in silence to see if there is not some place of peace to be found. We then talk; I mainly listen, often simply acknowledging what they are going through and wishing I could provide more answers. There is enough pain present to fill most lives several times over. At times it all seems unbearable, but there are moments when everything seems workable—joyous, actually—a joke is made, a young woman smiles on gaining some insight, a young guy momentarily lets down his guard. Sometimes I feel like I’m helping them, other times not.

Sometimes I wish that I could find a more “normal” vocation; at other times, hanging out with them makes me feel completely whole, as if I’m coming in touch with close relatives once known, then forgotten, now found. Knowing them allows me to feel less separate with the world. I walk around feeling like I know more about my city and world than I otherwise would.

As I’m leaving this night, Lorraine says, “Where is that book you were going to bring me?” I vaguely remember the conversation, but cannot remember which book she asked for. I ask her to remind me. “I can’t remember the name of the book,” she says, frustrated.

“What was it about?” I ask.

She looks at me intently. “I can’t remember that either, but just bring it, OK?”

This conversation perfectly reflects the challenge we face. Most of the kids want to be helped, but are not sure how to be helped or forget what they need. I want to help, but either I do not know how or can’t remember what it is I should do. There are moments, however, when everything comes together, like the surfer riding the tube of the wave, and these moments can make all the difference in the world.

Soren Gordhamer is cofounder of The Lineage Project, a program that teaches mindfulness meditation and yoga to at-risk and incarcerated teens. Working with some of the most violent and dangerous youth in society, they offer tools to develop wisdom and compassion. He is Director of Lineage Project East, where he works with incarcerated youth in New York City. Contact Soren at Lineagepro@aol.com

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Free Where I Am

By Patrick Doyle

I’m currently serving my fifth year of a ten-year sentence for armed burglary. I can get out in 2016. When I got arrested in 2007, I was an angry, young, confused gang member looking at a life sentence. I didn’t care about life anymore.

mb61-FreeWhereIAm1I was adopted at age five. Never really bonded with my “parents.” I got arrested for the first time when I was thirteen. Ever since, it’s been a continual battle to stay un-incarcerated. I got married at eighteen; that too didn’t work out. Two daughters later, after a lot of violence and hatred, we separated.

“Failed love,” gang banging, hatred, violence, and revenge were my life. Trust no one because they all want to hurt you. I’ve been stabbed and beat up more times than I can count. And done likewise back, numerous times. I was a ticking time-bomb waiting for an excuse to explode.

Then July 23, 2007 came. I got caught with about eight stolen rifles and some handguns. My co-defendant testified that I did everything. A complete lie, but it didn’t matter because for the state of Florida, I was a habitual felony offender who fell under the Prison Release Reoffender Act and I had committed a life felony.

December 2007, my now ex-girlfriend informed me that I had a son on the way. One DNA test later confirmed she was right. Now the state was not only determining my future, but my son’s as well. I got to see my son (born March 20, 2008) only twice. I wasn’t communicating with his mother or my parents except when I needed money. In January 2010, I decided to file for divorce. So my prison account was hit with a legal claim for $400. I was unable to pay anyone to serve my wife divorce papers.

Now I couldn’t get money, which only made me angrier. When I first came to prison I was a gang member who had rank and was doing drugs, smuggling cell phones onto the compound, selling drugs, and fighting. Now I increased the drug selling and smuggling. December 8, 2010, I got caught with a cell phone. I went into confinement, lost all the good conduct time I had, and got transferred to Controlled Management for six months. I hit rock bottom like a freight train. No money, no stamps, no mail, and unable to use the phone for almost ninety days. I completely crumbled inside.

I finally got to use the phone one day, and when my father picked up the phone, I didn’t know what to say. I asked how things were going. He informed me that he had had a heart attack and two surgeries, and that my mother was in the hospital with a blood infection and no use of her legs. Both were seventy-seven at the time. I was completely shocked, unsure what to do.

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Then one day I found two books on the book cart: The Dham mapada translated by Easwaran, and Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das. I was positive that this was the right path I was supposed to walk. With nothing but time on my hands, I started meditating and reading only Dharma books. I made the decision to fulfill any necessary obligations within the gang so I could get out, and did so. I got transferred to my current compound where I immediately covered up my gang tattoos with a lotus, a sun, a moon, the letter Om in Sanskrit, a Buddha, and a Dharma wheel saying “Eight Fold Path” with the Japanese character for karma in the center. I also got a tattoo saying “Om Mani Padme Hum” in Sanskrit. There is only one other Buddhist here at the work camp with me on a compound of three hundred. We just started a meditation session on Wednesdays.

My mother’s been in the hospital for almost nineteen months. She’s seventy-nine years old and her health is currently stable, as is my father’s. Our relationship has changed dramatically. My father, with whom I hadn’t had a full conversation in about six years, talks with me for fifteen minutes every week. We tell each other we love one another, something I never thought would happen. My mother and I write to each other lovingly.

I’m no longer confused, angry, vengeful, or hateful. I practice mindfulness in everything I do. I wake up daily feeling peaceful, happy, and calm. I sit zazen in the morning and at night. During the day I do walking, laughing, and working meditation. I chant Om Mani Padme Hum all day, as well as the Medicine Buddha’s mantra.

I have a future and a purpose in life, and nothing can take that Buddha nature away from me. I have read Thay’s book Be Free Where You Are, and one issue of the Mindfulness Bell. I love children, as does Thay, and I hope upon my release to not only meet Thay, but to visit Plum Village and become an OI member. I can truly say that I am free where I am, and that I have arrived, I am home. I have a great love for Zen and all Buddhist teachings. Thank you, Plum Village, Thay, and the whole Sangha.

Patrick Doyle lives in a correctional institution in Florida. He wrote this letter in response to the questions: When and how did you meet and fall in love with the practice? How have you transformed difficulty into peace amongst your family and loved ones?

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