Three Fridays ago marked the beginnings of a mindfulness program with the juveniles at the Allegheny County Jail. Each week I'm greeted with a mix of head nods and handshakes, as those who choose to come to group move to grab a thick, blue, plastic chair, and those who choose not to come shout out to the corrections officer to remotely grant them entry to their cells.
The roughly fifteen teens and I form a circle in the center of the common area, a large, gray, semicircular room with cells lining the back and sides, the monotone being briefly interrupted by separate large Steelers and Penguins emblems painted on the floor, and the bright orange crocs upon the inmate's feet. I face the exit, in clear line of sight with the corrections officers sitting at the control desk 10 yards away. Like walking into a recently shaken snow globe, the room takes time to settle, and then we begin.
The program has been and continues to be a challenge. I've been serving the elder population at the jail for 8 months, and sense their genuine acceptance of the role their own actions play into how they've come to be where they're at, and for some, a sincere determination to change. The younger population, well, they're teenagers, in jail. Still in the most formative years of their life, they seem weary and slow to accept advice that contradicts their own understanding of the world, reluctant to change, potentially because they have yet to realize that possibility.
Our interactions keep me on my toes. Outside of the routine of our mindfulness practices, when it opens up into discussion, their minds bob and weave around the topic, demanding from me quick, succinct responses to their statements and enquiries. Outwardly, they cannot sense any disruption to what they perceive as a calm state of mind, leaving me the only one aware of the heat, perspiration, and tension within my own body. The reason?...the awareness of the delicate and tenuous nature of the relative peace we're achieving in the room.
On account of these conditions, I find it difficult to plan how the session will unfold. On occasion, though, they incidentally open the doors to the greater point I was aiming to make. This past week was the introduction of the concept of loving kindness.
The juveniles are separated from the rest of the jail population. That means these roughly 20 teens live together all of the time, with one or two new inmates occasionally coming, and hopefully, in time, going.
Being in the middle of the banter that comes with the familiarity in the community, we talked about the words we choose, how paradoxically we have to be so very careful with their use, while at the same time remembering that they're "just words" when we're on the receiving end of those we'd rather not. We talked about the Golden Rule. We talked about how, in jail, kindness and showing emotion are perceived as weaknesses, which become an obstacle to establishing inner and outer harmony. We talked about how despite what we might have been told about ourselves, these seeds of kindness are within each and every one of us.
The door then opened, forcing us to consider, that if each of us committed to abandoning the idea of kindness as weakness, only then can we change the world in which we live.