When new attendees enter stress management, anger management, or depression management, we breathe.  I facilitate groups for mentally ill inmates at a men’s state penitentiary.  The group members have been diagnosed as having a thought disorder or a feeling disorder. They may have a short prison term or a life term.  Most have substance abuse in their backgrounds. Today they cope with incarceration and its stresses.  They can’t walk 100 yards in a straight line and some never will again.  They eat what is given to them, not what they want.  Privacy is lacking and quiet comes only in the early morning hours.

At the first class I talk about attention and I guide them through a breathing exercise in which we focus on the in-breaths and the out-breaths. We look at the breath. We don’t criticize the breath or change the breath.   We simply practice focusing our attention and the breath is always available so we focus on that. We don’t mention the word meditation and we don’t intellectualize.  We only experience.

I tell them that we are not trying to achieve anything by breathing; we just practice presence in each second. Anything that occurs around us is acceptable. They learn not to be concerned with what isn’t their business. The difference between what they can control and what they cannot control becomes clear.

At the end of class I say that the second daily practice in addition to being Observers inside is to be Observers outside.  We don’t take anything personally. No matter what anyone does or says, it’s not personal to us. It’s personal to the speaker and we don’t have to react. Being in their detached Observer gives them time and space so they don’t get caught up in another inmate’s drama.

At the next few classes we talk about forgiveness.  They say it’s easier to forgive others than to forgive themselves.  They carry significant self-hate and admit that they deserve incarceration even though they suffer.   Keeping their hearts closed promised them safety in a cruel world.  Now, opening those bruised and wounded hearts challenges the inmates.

I encourage them to be their own best friend. I suggest that they pat themselves on the back each night for doing something right that day. Relating to themselves as responsible adults fosters  a  sense of integrity. They learn to refer to themselves for judgment about how they live.   

We practice gratitude.  Many say they are grateful to wake up each day.  I encourage them to give thanks for small things—having fingernails, being able to tie their shoes, and having a bed.  (It’s a relief for many of the mentally ill not to be homeless.) And then I recommend being grateful for what they don’t like and don’t want—saying thank you to themselves for the cell mate who snores, accepting rude words from an officer without responding and blessing him silently, being grateful when no mail arrives.  They learn that their circumstances don’t determine their behavior or their feelings.

After weeks of practice I notice that the committed men are stiller, apparently happier with themselves, more present to the moment with less talk about the future. They are more available to their brothers who need guidance. I’m touched by their patience with the inmate who is developmentally delayed or by their explanation (in street terms) of why we breathe. (“It’s so we don’t hit the guy who pisses us off. I used to just cut anyone who dissed me but now I can wait and see that he’s just a loser who ain’t doing too good himself.”) 

Their words are crude but the longer they breathe and practice being in their Observers the more I can feel their gentleness, the part of themselves they tried to destroy decades ago. They remain basically decent humans struggling to climb through layers and layers of hate and guilt and confusion.  They gave up on themselves when everyone else gave up on them.  They didn’t know how they were going to survive the pain and alienation and solitude of their miserable lives.

By breathing and identifying with their Observers, they find a meaning to their existence which they haven’t known. They can’t articulate a philosophy but they wake up each day with some small hope and some willingness to reach out. They don’t necessarily understand why their outlook has changed but without thought they replace their previous addictive behavior with their new-found commitment to breathing and observing. 

They find power inside themselves instead of by using their fists.  Their journey all along has been one of warrior but now they see it’s a warrior with their own demons not with others.  In the past it was easier to focus on another man than to face their inner turmoil. With their skills of detached observing and breathing they can process any feeling or thought or impulse without destructive action.   

 They say they feel freer practicing breathing and detached observing in prison than they ever felt on the streets. They had imprisoned themselves in their minds years ago when they tried to escape from themselves.  Now when they open to every part of themselves, they resist nothing and resent nothing and accept what exists each second.  They say they have found freedom.