Friday, June 20, 2008

The Dhamma Brothers

I saw a movie a few nights ago called 'The Dhamma Brothers'. It's about a meditation program at Donaldson correctional facility in Alabama, one of the most violent prisons in the country. Two Bhuddist teachers of Vipassana meditation led a 10-day silent retreat for a volunteer group of inmates. They got up at dawn and meditated for several hours each day. Some of the inmates went through an amazing transformation.

They were forced to confront and accept the horrible crimes they had committed. When you aren't allowed to talk for 10 days, and all you have are your thoughts to keep you company, it's hard to ignore your feelings. Many of them had breakdowns as they felt the full force of their own suffering for the first time.

At first, the warden was skeptical that the prisoners were just acting to get parole; "fake it 'til you make it". Then he started noticing major changes in the inmates' behavior. They became less violent and easier to deal with. Some of them left their gangs. Even after the program was discontinued thanks to an overzealous chaplain, many of the "Dhamma brothers" continued meditating on their own.

It's hard to doubt a grown man's sincerity when you see tears running down his cheeks. These men were hardened criminals, most of them serving life sentences for murder, who rediscovered perspective and humanity simply by spending focused time with themselves.

Meditation is a powerful tool. There are two types of knowledge: intellectual and visceral. You can read books until you're cross-eyed and you will never connect with the fundamental, animal, visceral side of living.
We like to think of ourselves as rational, conscious beings. It's reassuring to us. We're in control of our minds and therefore our lives. But that's more illusion than reality.

Neuroscience and meditation have shown us that the human mind is like a monkey riding an elephant. The monkey is our conscious and the elephant is our subconscious. The monkey can tell the elephant where to go, but ultimately the elephant is going to do what it wants. The monkey likes to be in charge however, so it retroactively decides it was the one that chose the direction.

To illustrate the point, imagine doing a simple algebra problem. Do you have to go over everything you ever learned about algebra in your head to solve that problem? No, your subconscious navigates the strata of accumulated knowledge and practically hands you the answer. What happens when you decide on an entree at a restaurant? Do you make a pro/con list for each item and weigh them accordingly? Or do you decide based on a feeling? Where does that feeling come from?

Meditation is plugging back into the vastness of human experience. It's acknowledging that your conscious, declarative mind is only a small slice of the pie.

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