‘How meditation helped me through a tough stint working in prison’

Susan makes a case for mediation. Source: Getty

It was following my daughter’s example that I learnt to meditate. She was about 22 years old, had been away to an art college in the England’s Midlands and armed with her degree had started to teach art in a Birmingham men’s prison.

Now teaching in a prison is very stressful, not to mention that the prisoners themselves are stressed out so in learning to meditate, my daughter, Louise, was able to cope with the tense feelings of the incarcerated men while teaching. When she wasn’t teaching she was creating works of art, etchings, which were accepted for exhibitions not only in Birmingham but in London. Many were sold but she didn’t earn enough from her artwork to support herself, hence her day job.

Seeing how calm Louise became because of her daily meditations, I signed on for a course. Louise had gone to a meditation centre in Birmingham, I went to a sister branch in Kent, the county where I lived and I splashed out on a three-day residential course.

It was a wonderful experience: the learning sessions and also sleeping in the hotel-type rooms on the grounds of a former stately home and eating with about 50 people in the big dining hall. Not all of us were learners, some were there for advanced courses in meditation and a few were attending sessions in levitation. I envisaged that they’d be sitting crossed legged and hovering in the air but apparently it’s not quite that. I think it’s meditating to the point where people enter a trancelike state and feel so light it’s as if they are floating – I think that’s what was explained to me.

We were taught to meditate by the mental repetition of a mantra – a word each of us were given and told to keep secret. Beforehand it had been explained to us that by repeating the word we decreased our natural mental activity which causes our bodies to settle down and decrease in internal physical activity. This brings about deep rest and thus our bodies start to repair the nervous system and any imbalances. In turn this brings about the release of stress, which enables physical activity to increase on the structural level: veins, nerves that sort of thing. Then comes an increase of mental activity, which gives rise to thoughts and when thoughts come, we had to return to repeating the mantra and the whole process would start over again. After 20 minutes our teacher would say in a calm voice to keep our eyes closed but to stop the meditation process and after a few minutes, we were told to open our eyes.

I kept up meditating for years and nowadays I sort of naturally meditate, especially when sitting in the dentist waiting room! It certainly stood me in good stead about a year later when I went to be a substitute art teacher in the original Borstal youth prison in Rochester. The head teacher was going on holiday and the art teacher became the acting principal in her place.

My goodness, the tension in that classroom. I had to meditate immediately upon returning home. Recently in lockdown here in France where I now live, I was sitting one afternoon in my front garden and a man running along the road stopped to talk to me – at a safe distance, of course – and it turned out he was a warden in the county prison and he said to relieve stress he always goes for a run before leaving for work (night duty on this occasion). I said that the prisoners must be more stressed out now, during the pandemic, as they don’t have visitors, he nodded.

That made me recall how the people who taught me meditation had been trying to get the government to allow them to teach meditation to prison inmates, but to no avail. That was 45 years ago, however only recently I read that the UK government was considering the idea of meditation being taught in prisons, not just to the inmates but to the wardens. Hopefully that will come about in prisons of all civilised countries.

For the last five years, Sofia Darvall, who I’ve known for over 30 years, and is now living in Portugal, has been teaching meditation in the form of mindfulness. She says it’s “a mix of psychology, eastern philosophies and meditation”. Then explaining that in mindfulness, meditation is often focused on the breath as an anchor, as a tool always there for us, we simply follow the breath in and out.

She said most mindfulness meditations are guided, their scripts (guiding words) learned or recorded for regular practice. People learn mindfulness “to build up resilience, curiosity, compassion and other resources that help us learn to respond rather than react to what comes our way.”

She added: “Mindfulness helps us to practice living in the here and now and being mindful of our habits, especially those that no longer nourish us.The British NHS, schools, and some fire fighters use it regularly now as much as a preventative to stress, as also a treatment.”

She then added that like being in “a mental gym, meditation practice teaches us how to listen to our breath, to our bodies and – to notice how we are, simply to be.”

I think by this she means we become aware of our vital existence but at the same time we develop a calm reaction to what occurs in life.

I asked another long-standing friend, Wendy, how she started to meditate and she replied: “I first learned to meditate by the breathing method your friend described, it does take practice to empty your mind but when you achieve this it’s such an amazing feeling, like you’re out of your body, completely at peace.”

She told me that in group meditations, tapes were also used “which helped to take meditation to a deeper level to connect with our higher self – being in oneness – which then can progress to amazing connections with spiritual energy.”

She said this is used for medium readings and for healing.

“Meditation relaxes and heals our bodies and mind. Perfect for today’s uncertain world.”

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