Meditation as Prison Reform: Vipassana, Ten Days of Silence

I first heard about it two years ago in Northern India and then again from a recent ex-girlfriend.  Typically the timing is never right for this kind of thing…cause hey, its ten days and I’m a busy guy.  But for once the timing was right, and to be honest I’m not that busy.  So in early December I drove three hours north of the city to a small compound in northern California.  It’s the type of area where the guys sport grizzled beards and drive old pickup trucks that run on used cooking oil.  Here, surrounded by dense forest we began our course in Vipassana meditation, ten days of silence. 

If you’re anything like my grandmother I need to assure you that this is not a cult nor is it in anyway dangerous.  The day starts at 4:30am and ends at 9:30pm.  In between you get two meals, a tea time, and a whole hell of a lot of meditation.  Then, repeat for ten days without talking or making eye contact and you have yourself a full fledged Vipassana class. 

The technique was designed to focus your mind in order to be aware of the sensations of the body.  By understanding these sensations you will gain an experimental knowledge of craving and aversion and as a result understand desire and suffering.  This is the goal, although it’s admittedly a long process.  In the short run however, there are some beneficial side effects.  Most notably the surfacing of old memories (pleasant and unpleasant) and the general happiness and clarity that comes about at the end of the program.  This is the justification for its use in prisons. 

This particular meditation technique was laid down 2,500 years ago by Guatama Siddhartha (the historical Buddha).  Now it has become a standard feature in many prisons around India and has even started being used in the U.S.  The Indian government decided to implement the program originally in 1975 and then again in 1994 under the direction of Ms Kiran Bedi in the Tihar Central Jail of New Delhi.  Since that time the results have been astounding even to the point of inmates breaking down and crying in the arms of their captures.  Currently the Indian government is encouraging their prisons and detainment centers around the country to adapt the program. 

As far as the U.S. prison system goes, the program is still in its infancy.  It’s been tried in a couple of places like as Bessemer, Alabama and Seattle, Washington (Seattle being the 1st).  Now the question remains, should this continue to be implemented in our prisons here in the United States.?  Well, here are some major points to consider:

  1. What’s the cost?  At least so far, the cost of running these programs has been met strictly by donations.  And only people who have completed at least one 10 day course are allowed to donate.  If this remains the case, then implementing the program would have little or no effect on government spending.  If they end up changing it, then that’s something else to consider. 
  1. Is this religion?  In a sense…yes.  It is based off the teachings of the Buddha and is based on some ideas about the nature of life after death.  And in a sense…no.  They do a great job of keeping all Buddhist culture out of the program and try to focus only on the technique.  Also, there is no reason that anyone has to accept anything contrary to their own philosophy.  They are very clear about not being a religion. 
  1. Is this a bunch of hippie bullshit? Normally I might say yes, but I’ve been through it so I know that it works (and it definitely can’t hurt).  If you don’t believe me, then there’s only one way to make a solid argument.  So if you find yourself with ten days to spare, why not put your “time” where your mouth is and try the course.  It won’t cost you a thing…and there’s even free food involved. How can you turn down free food?

For more information, check out the documentary “Doing Time, Doing Vipassana”.

Daniel Royse Written by:

Daniel Royse is the founder and editor in chief of the online travel publication, This Boundless World. He has written numerous articles on travel, business and politics and has recently completed his first full-length novel titled The Watermelon King. Daniel is an obsessive writer and explorer who has backpacked to over 50 countries, spanning five continents. To the disbelief of many, he still enjoys long, hot bus rides through chaotic places. More information about The Watermelon King can be found at Contact: danroyse(to)