Years of patient effort came to fruition this past December when a Vipassana course took place within Israel’s Hermon Prison – the first such course ever held within the country’s prison system.
Some 10 years ago, the makers of Doing Time, Doing Vipassana had been invited to show their film to officials in Israel’s Prison Service. The response was highly positive, and plans were set in motion to organize a course. But doing this is a major undertaking, and always some obstacle came up. The idea began to seem like an impossible dream. At least a few people, however, refused to stop trying to realize the dream. In July 2006 they at last achieved a breakthrough when the Service decided to hold a course in Hermon Prison.
Hermon is a minimum-security rehabilitation facility located in a quiet area of the Lower Galilee, not far from Tiberias and Tzefat. Around it are rolling hills with rocky outcrops showing through the sparse vegetation. It is a thinly populated region and at night jackals call from the hills.
Hermon helps inmates to reclaim their lives and find a place for themselves in the world. The emphasis is on treating drug and alcohol addiction. Many of the staff members are trained social workers and education specialists with extraordinary dedication to their job. The prison is the only facility of its kind in Israel.
Hermon has a population of some 500 men. All follow a rigorous daily regimen starting at 5:00 a.m. and running until 11:00 p.m. They go through a series of programs designed to break the cycle of addiction and patterns of violence. They are taught to be self-aware, handle responsibility and work together as a team. Despite this, rehabilitation is a huge challenge. The habits of a lifetime are deeply ingrained. All too often men are released only to find themselves back inside the prison system after a short time. This is why prison officials were willing to take a chance on Vipassana. If a course could help some men break free of habit patterns that hurt themselves and others, it would be worth it.
In September 2006 a series of orientation sessions started at Hermon. Eventually 13 participants were selected ranging in age from 21 to 44. They included native speakers of English, Hebrew, Russian and Arabic; among them were Jews, Muslims and Christians. Most were recovering addicts. Several were repeat offenders and one was serving a 15 – year sentence. Some had spent most of their adult lives in jail. Almost all had suffered abuse as children or had grown up in difficult circumstances.
A strong team was assembled for the course. Conducting it was the teacher responsible for Israel, supported by two local assistant teachers who acted as managers. Also in the management was an old student who was a senior member of the prison staff. Other old students volunteered to prepare the meals. An unusual feature was that they were given a place to work in the main prison kitchen, alongside staff and inmates. Their sleeping quarters were within the prison but outside the meditation compound – a difficult experience for them. They had to follow strict security procedures, such as never leaving a knife unattended and counting all the cutlery three times a day. Any mistake, they knew, could have grave repercussions. During the course they had to answer many questions, sometimes about Vipassana and sometimes simply about what they were cooking. They were treated with courtesy and respect, and given exemplary cooperation.
Meal menus were the same as at a regular course. Students were initially suspicious of the vegetarian diet but came to enjoy it. At the end of the course several mentioned how much they appreciated the care and attention evident in the food prepared for them. On the day the course was to begin, the participants each had a private interview with the teacher. As they waited their turn, they sat outdoors in the winter sunshine, laughing and joking. But many were also nervous. Despite the preparation they had received, they felt they were embarking on a journey to an unknown destination. Nearby was the course compound where they would spend the next 10 days. This consisted of a one-room dormitory with bunk beds, a dining room, toilets and makeshift showers, rooms for the teacher and managers, and a meditation hall. Surrounding the site was a fence made of a tarpaulin stretched between metal poles. It proved to be a less than perfect barrier: participants could hear their friends only a few metres away, and from some points they could see them too. This made the work of introspection all the harder.
The course begins
The plan had been to offer the teaching in English and Hebrew, as is customary in Israel. This is how the course began, but it quickly became apparent that a number of participants had limited understanding of these languages. The course therefore became increasingly trilingual: as far as possible, instructions were played in Russian as well. From the start, the students found it hard to ignore fellow meditators in the confined area of the compound. Nevertheless they began working very seriously, more so than students in a regular course. On Day 2, when the head of the prison came to see what was happening, she was surprised to find all sitting silently in the hall.
By Day 3 the atmosphere had become remarkably quiet. The course was having an impact on the entire prison, which re-arranged break schedules to minimize the disturbance to meditators. On Day 4 students started Vipassana. At once the technique began working within them, bringing up feelings of agitation and other difficulties. In the following days many went through storms. At the same time they kept working seriously. Within the hall the meditative atmosphere was intense, and many students commented on how quiet their minds had become.
On Day 8, again the prison head came to check on the course. Once again she was amazed that prison inmates could keep meditating so seriously for so many days. A Vipassana course is never easy, and some of the meditators found it particularly hard. One student had had problems from the beginning: He was not comfortable on the floor, in a chair or leaning against a wall. He accumulated a mound of cushions, but still he was restless and had difficulty concentrating. After Day 4 his troubles continued with Vipassana; when asked what he experienced, he would reply, “Nothing special.” This went on day after day. Finally on Day 8 the teacher told him, “You have the brains and strength for this. All you need is to decide that you will do it.”
The next day this student put back most of the cushions he had accumulated and started working seriously. In the afternoon he told one of the managers, “I’ve understood the technique!” His face and manner softened. He had regained confidence in himself. There were smiles and relief after silence ended on Day 10. The destination was in sight; the journey had been worthwhile. One student said, “If everyone felt the way I do now, the world would be a better place.”
The last day
After the end of the course on Day 11, the prison staff organized a closing ceremony, as is done after any program at Hermon. Students were able to invite their friends; also present were very senior officials from the Prison Service. The meditators each received a card with a message of congratulations from S.N. Goenka, translated into Hebrew. Several spoke movingly about their experience.
One said, “I understood that every time I craved for a cigarette or anything else, I was craving for pleasant sensations. That was a big discovery.” Another told of the times he had thought of leaving the course: “Suddenly I realized this is what I had been doing all my life – running away without facing the situation. I understood that the problem was within me, and that now I had a tool to help me change this habit pattern.”
It was then time to separate and return to ordinary life.
After the course
In the following days, most of the students adjusted well and were reported to be happy and cooperative. One cut back on cigarettes; another stopped smoking altogether. One student went before a parole board and was granted early release. Another chose not to apply for early release. Instead he decided to remain in the prison in order to help youngsters who had become involved with drugs, so that they could avoid the years of suffering he had experienced.
All the students were interviewed for an academic study commissioned by the Prison Service. Many had impressive things to report. One said, “Before, I had known about the things we learned in the course. But that was all in my head. Now it is deep inside me.” Follow-up interviews will be conducted after three months. Immediately after the course, officials from Hermon and the Prison Service were enthusiastic and spoke about setting up an ongoing Vipassana program. No firm decision has yet been taken. But what matters was that this course was an undeniable success.
The credit for that must go to the meditators themselves. Despite all the difficulties, they worked hard and seriously. Perhaps this was because they knew firsthand the reality of suffering and the danger of running after pleasant experiences. They knew that to have any sort of decent future, they had to free themselves from unwholesome habit patterns. It was a matter of life and death for them.
Now of course the students face an uphill struggle. To help them, group sittings have been set up four times a week, with the participation of staff members who have taken Vipassana courses. An assistant teacher will try to come in regularly. There is no guarantee that all will be easy. But the students have gained a valuable tool that can help them choose a good direction for their life. Sooner or later they will use it to achieve real peace, real harmony, real happiness.
Voices from Hermon
For years I have been asking myself, “Why am I suffering?” For years I have asked myself this very question. When I am drug-free, I suffer. In my childhood I suffered. When I take drugs, again I suffer. Why does this suffering happen to me? I didn’t know that it came from inside me. That is one of the main things I discovered . . . that I do not suffer because of the prison head, or the head of my ward, or a particular officer or anyone else. I suffer because of the anger within me, because of craving. All that caused me to suffer and not enjoy life. I always thought that drugs were one of the things I was addicted to. I am not addicted to drugs – I discovered that I am addicted to the sensations that drugs give me.
I understood that things around me are not that important. It’s what I think of myself, I am the center of myself. If I understand who I am, and what I am, it shouldn’t really bother me what other people think – what their actions are towards me. It’s not as if I discovered America. I found myself, after 45 years of being alive.
I began to sit on the cushion and do what I was told, which was simply to breathe in and out through the nose, and to concentrate just on the breath. And I’ll tell you, I don’t know how to describe what I experienced. I never imagined that it would be so hard. Just to look at the breath as it goes in, as it goes out. And in those moments that I tried, for one or two seconds I succeeded, and suddenly I found that I was in a completely different space. And again I remembered that I needed to do this exercise, the breathing, and again the mind took me somewhere else entirely. And I began to feel that actually I was struggling with someone who would not let me rest. And that drew me to think about my life – I never knew how to look at the here and now. I always looked either to the future, when I did not know what would happen, or to the past, which was already past. And that led me to understand that I need to focus on the here and now – what is happening to me now in this moment. And that brought to mind my life – what I had forfeited. Every time I had encountered a difficulty, I ran away.
I have so many things to say, but the emotion I feel makes it hard to recall them and hard to express them. . . . At the end of each evening’s talk Goenka would say, “May you be happy, may you be liberated. May all beings be happy.” And that truly is what I wish everyone.
(Courtesy: International Vipassana Newsletter, February 2007 issue)