15 November, 2015

Eight Weeks to Mindfulness, My Ass!

For thirteen years I avoided any and all programs offered to the prison population. With titles such as Thinking for a Change, Impact of Crime on Victims, and Emotional Regulation, they sounded both painfully remedial and ill-suited to someone unjustly imprisoned. I considered my uninvolvement a personal point of pride: they could lock me away with criminals but they could not treat me like a dog in need of obedience lessons.

Then up went a notice, this summer, of four brand new programs. I eyed it with ambivalence until spotting Mindfulness Teachings on the list.

Practicing mindfulness — a state of being that is instead of does, accepts instead of strives, observes without analyzing — involves daily meditation. Mindfulness is a facet of Eastern religion co-opted by Western culture once the benefits to mind and body that a certain type of meditation confers were noticed. Scientific studies have repeatedly shown mindfulness practice's effectiveness at reducing or eliminating anxiety, depression, dependence issues, negative moods, feelings of alienation, attention deficits, mental inflexibility, obsessive thought patterns, and even the prevalence of cancer and cardiovascular diseases among its practitioners. Why wouldn’t I want in on some sweet wellness action?

An eight-week program. The class was even agreeably scheduled: Wednesdays at 2:30 PM. I considered the unlikelihood of a Department of Corrections-chartered program actually teaching me something. Then I signed up anyway. If it sucked, I’d at least have tried something different and given my cellmate a little extra time to himself.

Our first day, I lingered in the long, narrow cinder-block Education hallway with seven other guys who’d enrolled. Each had folders, notepads, and pens in hand. I asked Scotty, a balding scatterbrain who lived downstairs from me in the honor dorm, if we were expected to bring supplies and I didn’t get the memo. He just shrugged and said, “I bring ‘em to all the classes.”

“Well,” I said, “this is my first DOC program.”

“Ever!?” Scotty looked like I’d just shown him my second pair of hands. “I sign up for ‘em all.”

A round-headed man tipped vaguely in our direction to ask, “Ay, which class is this ‘pose to be, anyway?”

Someone else spoke up. “Overcoming Trauma.”

It turned out that everyone present had signed up for all four of the new programs, indiscriminately. Apparently I was the only person interested in acquiring knowledge and usable life skills. The rest of them were in it solely for the impression their certificates of completion might make on the parole board.

Our facilitator was a mumbler. I have a terrible tendency to misunderstand the most clearly spoken, but the compact thirtysomething seemed intent on minimizing his presence, verbally as well as physically. He addressed the class in a voice that sounded like a bad imitation of South Park’s Mr. Mackie, or Bill Lumburgh, from Office Spacemmm-kay? — muffled by a short dark beard. He frequently mispronounced words. I gently corrected his pronunciation of tyranny, but he continued saying “tie-runny.” That may have been the point at which I gave up.

The first class lasted just twenty-five minutes, a span devoted to his explanation of how to sign the class roster, and a rundown on ways he judged whether someone was paying attention to his droning, repetitive, lectures. Oh, and this would be his first time teaching Mindfulness, so we might run longer than eight weeks, or we might wrap up early. Whichever, mmm-kay?

The second class challenged me. To stay awake. The facilitator (whose name got lost in his beard, the one time he said it) scratched poorly arranged sentence fragments on the blackboard, often with misspellings, in assorted bright colors. He droned on and on. Things livened up for a few minutes when we were interrupted by a fit of guttural screams. Someone in the hall outside pitched some sort of fit and had to be maced. Class was dismissed, on account of chemical irritants. We held our breath, departing through the cloud.

Week three, class was canceled.

Week four, class was canceled and then rescheduled without notice, the following morning. I had just placed a phone call when a guard handed me a pass and said, “Uh, that pass is for, like, right now.”

Week five, class was canceled.

Week six, we got passes for the class on Tuesday afternoon but nothing on Wednesday.

Week seven, amazingly enough, class was held as scheduled.

Weeks eight and nine, nada.

You get the idea. This went on for three and a half months. The other afternoon I was walking laps on the yard when I crossed paths with a classmate. I hadn’t seen him in weeks. There were still two classes remaining. My expectation was to finish the program sometime before Halloween, possibly. But my classmate had news. “I was up there this morning,” he said, “and the dude said he was just gonna send us our Mindfulness certificates. We done, I guess.”

All that for nothing, then. Who’d have thought enlightenment would be so hard to come by?