Bringing Zen into prisons

The Modesto Bee, June 21, 2003

Each time Grace Schireson drove past signs for the two women’s prisons in Chowchilla, she felt pangs of suffering.

Schireson, a Zen Buddhist priest who lives in Madera County, passed the signs often on her way to teach meditation classes in Fresno and Modesto.

The licensed psychologist — ordained as a Zen priest in 1998 — was grateful to have found meditation, which, she said, “enabled me to have a bigger space in which to turn my problems over on another side.”

It pained her to think of the women behind the prisons’ wire fences and cinder-block walls — women who “didn’t have an opportunity to change their minds,” said Schireson, 56, of North Fork.

She broached the idea of bringing Zen — an Asian Buddhist tradition of meditation — into the prisons to Jeanette Callow, a member of Modesto’s Valley Heartland Zen Group, which Schireson leads.

“It just worked like a synchronistic moment,” said Callow, 65, of Ripon, who had been reading about such prison outreach and wanted to start doing it. “It just sounded like something very needed in our area.”

Reaching out

Since spring, Schireson has led small groups of Zen practitioners from the Modesto area, North Fork and Fresno into Valley State Prison for Women. They volunteer every other week to meditate with inmates who are serving sentences as short as six months and as long as life.

They also periodically visit Central California Women’s Facility across the street, which houses similar inmates, as well as those condemned to death.

Each prison holds about 3,500 women serving time for crimes ranging from embezzlement, petty theft, robbery and burglary to manslaughter, attempted murder and murder. About 80 percent are serving time for drug-related offenses, prison officials said.

“The conditions in prison are not that different from conditions in a monastery,” said Schireson, who has studied Zen in the United States and Japan.

At Valley State Prison for Women, most inmates live in dormitories, each housing eight women. They spend their days working in various service jobs, studying and sometimes engaging in recreational activities such as sports or crafts. Periodically, they are counted. Hours are defined by bells.

“This is an excellent place to develop that spiritual part of yourself,” said Coreen Sanchez, 51, of Eureka, who has served six years for manufacturing methamphetamine. “It is so structured here, you can develop your technique really well. … (The meditation) gives you a balance and grounding.”

Sanchez was one of 16 women who attended Schireson’s meditation session last week. Sessions are open to women of all security levels at the prison, except those who’ve had such privileges taken away for poor behavior.

The inmates lie on blue plastic mats on the prison gymnasium’s concrete floor; light sifts in from small, high windows. Schireson begins the hourlong session with stress-reduction meditation, yoga stretches and visualization.

She urges them to focus on their breathing to release tiredness, boredom and tension.

“Remember, when you hear sounds, let the sound pass right through you like light through a glass,” Schireson instructs.

As chests gently rise and fall, Schireson urges the women to “be connected to life in all its forms. This is your right as a human being. … Remember to breathe and be gentle with yourselves. It doesn’t matter how harsh other people are, no one is with you more than yourself.”

Schireson guides the diverse group of women — very young to middle-age, white, black, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian — into an upright meditative posture.

They sit for 20 minutes, eyes shut, hands clasped in their laps.

“Remember to keep your mind like a big sky,” Schireson says in a calm voice. “If you feel thoughts arise, let them pass like clouds.”

Focus helps

Focused breathing and concentration help the women learn to “observe their own mind,” Schireson said.

“They are learning how to use awareness to reflect on an activity before they do it, and how to use their awareness to transform their pain and suffering into a more positive response.”

For example, she said, the women may learn to identify and separate themselves from anger, rather than allowing it to dictate their responses.

“If you have habits of mind and you indulge them, such as getting angry or feeling disappointed, you add hardship,” she said.

Schireson’s goal is to offer the ability to reflect on life and to develop a greater understanding of what life is about.

She is sharing “the understanding that there is a deeper wisdom than is normally accessed by most people. … Perhaps that wisdom will guide (the women) to fulfill themselves in that, whether they are in prison or out.”

Meditation works

Several of the women said meditation is working. They find quiet spaces and times to meditate during the day. They feel less tired and tense, they said, and more relaxed in their crowded and sometimes hectic living conditions.

“You just need to take a break and really think about getting in touch with your inner self,” said Angela Shepard, 39, of Whittier, who is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. “It is really important to know yourself, body and mind, and talk yourself down. … It helps me manage.”

Meditation helps them cope with being away from their children, the stress resulting from a lack of control over events in the outside world, the tension of life within the facility and unresolved issues from their lives, they said.

“In here, you feel a lot of loneliness and pain, both because of the sentencing and because of being away from your family unit,” said Nelly Sanchez, 49, of Clovis. “If it comes out, you get angry; you don’t know what to do with it. Lashing out really is not the way.

“Here, I feel loved,” she added, looking around to the other women in the class. Meditation is helping her cope with the recent death of her mother, she said, which occurred while she was incarcerated. She did not attend the funeral.

“It’s hard out there, being a convict,” said Sanchez, who is incarcerated for her second time. “To try to deal again with how to live out there, it’s hard; society does not accept you. But if you are OK and centered with yourself, then you will be able to handle whatever comes toward you.”

Zen meditation has helped Sanchez do that, she said, as well as find forgiveness in herself and relearn coping tools that, she said, many inmates have lost “along the way.”

The women plan to keep up the practice, both inside the prison and, for those who will eventually be released, on the outside, they said. They hope to teach others.

“You feel better in your mind and spirit,” said Arlene Whitney, 50, of Oceanside, who is nine years into a life sentence for first-degree murder. “(And) it teaches you that you can do it anywhere.”

Making a difference

Dan Walsh, recreation coordinator at Valley State Prison for Women, oversees each Zen meditation session. The women seem calmer and have a better outlook on life since joining the class, he said.

“There are a lot of gates and procedures you have to go through (here); you have to deal with the structure of an institution and an inmate population — some of whom are corrupt or bad,” he said. “(Inmates) are feeling on edge already. But when they leave (the class), they float out of here instead of being rigid.”

He and other prison officials said any course that helps inmates get along and control emotions — both within the facility and in society once released — is a plus.

“This is not what they are here for, but it definitely makes them better people,” said Sylvia Hedlind, community-resources manager at the prison, who worked with Schireson to set up the sessions. “They will definitely get out and live in our neighborhoods, so anything we can do of a positive nature here will be of benefit to the community.”

Though classes are secular and do not go into the religious aspects of Zen Buddhism, the outreach has become a unique way for the local Zen community to practice and share together, Schireson said. Volunteers said that seeing the personal growth and gratitude of the women has deepened their own practice.

Stan Cunningham, 62, of Modesto, for example, recently shared a message of regret from his own life with the group. Tears formed in some inmates’ eyes, and one woman approached him to tell him she appreciated his message.

“It has allowed for more compassion and awareness and gratefulness. (The inmates) are saying it’s meaningful, but it’s a two-way street,” Callow said.

“When you get face-to-face with who you really are, the core of whatever it is we all are, one can then achieve a freedom and a sense in the world that is just precious and is so special.”

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