Challenge Twelve: Nurture the Soul

A prison might not be the first place that comes to mind when considering the benefits of regular spiritual practice. Yet, the success of a meditation program offered to inmates at a high-risk prison in Alabama gives weight to the adage “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

The William E. Donaldson Correction Facility is a maximum-security prison located in Bessemer, Alabama. It is a rough-and-tumble place: the facility is named after a corrections officer who was killed by an inmate. The prison houses offenders serving lengthy sentences – several hundred are sentenced to life without parole – and it specializes in managing “behaviourally difficult” inmates.

Notwithstanding its hard-knocks reputation, in 2002 the Donaldson facility established a pioneering meditation program for its inmates. Based on the teachings of the Buddha, the ten-day intensive retreat helps participants to improve their self-awareness, self-confidence and hopefulness. The program is voluntary, but it’s far from a cake-walk. Participants meditate in complete silence for 10-13 hours a day for ten straight days. Owing to its rigidity, one inmate described the program as “tougher than his eight years on Death Row.”

The benefits are impressive. Inmates who complete the program report lower stress levels, better control of their emotions, improved social skills, and a new sense of peace. This calmness of mind has helped to reduce aggression and other behavioural problems amongst participants. As evidence, the Alabama Department of Corrections found that inmates who completed the program had a 20 percent reduction in disciplinary action.

If regular spiritual practice can work in a hardened place like a maximum-security prison, what would it offer to a comparatively placid life? That’s the question I sought to answer with my final challenge of the year. So I challenged myself to invest at least one hour every day doing a spiritual activity. Every day this month, I spent time meditating, practicing yoga, reading contemplative texts, and attending spiritual services.

In the past, I’ve never thought of myself as a spiritual person. I’m not religious, and so coming into this month I wondered how and if spirituality would fit into my life. Despite my agnostic beliefs, I promised myself to keep an open mind in exploring what it means to be spiritual.

An early revelation came while attending service one Sunday. In his sermon, the minister spoke of a spiritual life as one that has a higher purpose and is in service of something larger than yourself. It’s a life based on goodness and compassion, not aggression or ill-will towards others.

This portrayal of spirituality deeply resonated with me. Truth be told, I always found it unsettling that my life was so void of spirituality, like I was missing a key ingredient to living an authentically full life. Yet my entire yearlong experiment in creating change has focused on doing good in the world, through small daily gestures of contribution, kindness and compassion. Could it be that I’ve been leading a spiritual life all along?

A breakthrough moment came during a weekend meditation retreat at a local Buddhist centre. In between meditation exercises, one of the speakers talked about the interconnectedness of trees in a forest. He explained how trees share nutrients and water through an underground network, the bigger trees feeding the younger ones, making the entire “community” of trees stronger as a whole.

Inspired by this thought, one day I spent an hour in contemplation in the forest behind the university where I teach. It was a grey and drizzly day. But, instead of feeling bleak and alone, I saw the world around me in a different way.

Breathing in the oxygen-rich air and regarding the beauty of the forest around me, I saw the web of life of which each of us is a part. We are indeed all connected. The art of being human and living a meaningful life – dare I say a spiritual life – is to nurture those connections in service of something greater than ourselves. Like the trees in the forest, we need each other in order to thrive.