Friday, August 31, 2012

Meditation, Prisons & Public Schools?

Last week while listening to a locally produced PBS radio show, WXXI 1370 Connection, there was a segment entitled "School's In Session (Almost); What's Ahead" discussing the challenges of our city's school district. During the last 10 minutes of the program, a caller mentioned a film and strategy for implementation that might offer some relief to troubled segments of the student population. He suggested that host Bob Smith's guest, executive director of the Monroe County School Boards Association Jody Siegle, check out the documentary, The Dhamma Brothers (2009). The caller's suggestion was to consider the film's core idea, the use of non-secular meditation as an antidote top recklessness and violence in a correctional facility, to develop a similar program for use in our troubled public schools.

As the documentary's subtitle ("East Meets West in the Deep South") implies, The Dhamma Brothers is set in the deep south, but not just any part of the South, but in an Alabama penitentiary. The East/West angle comes into play as the documentary follows the efforts of teachers and inmates to exact a degree of personal and cultural change when it becomes the first maximum-security prison in North America to hold an extended Vipassana retreat, an emotionally and physically demanding course of silent meditation lasting ten days.

Focusing on the potential for transformation in the most horrific environment possible, Dhamma Brothers follows and documents the stories of the prison inmates at Donaldson Correction Facility who enter into this arduous and intensive program. The emphasis of the film, as well as the meditative strategy, was reflection on one's actions. If, as has been suggested, meditation is "finding the medicine for the sickness we have created by ourselves," can focused discipline contribute to an individual's rehabilitation?

While it seems a jump, taking an approach used in prisons in elementary and secondary public schools, the idea of teaching youth meditation is not completely new. While Ms. Seigle suggested that some schools in our area currently teach meditation (I could find no evidence online of this), there are programs in other schools that hint at the potential for success.

Among the varied experiences I have had as an educator is teaching (GED, pre-release) programs in a number of different correctional (men's and women's prisons, county jail) facilities. My thoughts regarding the value of introducing meditation techniques to at-risk students, hold true relative to its value for the incarcerated. The terrible anguish, anger and sadness is palpable in these places, and while some might suggest this lot in life is a deserved consequence, there is some validity to mediation's ability to contribute to a sounder, safer persona and prison community.

The online article, "Why Our Children Should Be Taught to Meditate in School" by Richard Schiffman, delineates some reasons why meditation would be beneficial for students to learn. Interestingly, some of the negative behaviors meditation might combat are behaviors that softening school codes are now supporting such as the "...damaging are the habits which they (electronic devices in the classroom) inculcate in the young -- the surfing mentality which is always looking restlessly toward the next image, message or sensation."

Fascinating stuff that is worthy of deeper exploration and consideration. My hope is that some educator with the mojo necessary to research and pilot something like this will do so. While there is much information to process in achieving a firm grasp on the application of meditation to public school curriculum (exactly "how" or "why"), the initial anecdotal evidence (see links below) would seem to suggest that the "why not?" question is worth seeking a response to.

The Dhamma Brothers is available for streaming (or DVD) on Netflix.

Recommended related links:

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