When I first learned to meditate, I went to a real authority. The guy who ran the class had been taught directly by the internationally-famous spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh. The classes were expensive and had a huge waiting list.
They were terrible.
I then heard about a woman named Clara who had taught a colleague of mine, and I called her to find out if she’d teach me.
“Yeah, sure. But I only teach in the morning. I’m an old lady, you know.”
I met Clara at her door, but I didn’t know if the woman at the door was actually her. She didn’t look old at all. “Are you Clara?” She looked at me and said, “I’m the only one living here, honey.”
Clara said she had been teaching meditation for twenty-five years. “And I’m 80, so you can do the math on when I started.”
I asked her what got her interested in meditating at this late point in her life. “I started when I was in prison.”
I laughed because I thought she was kidding. “I’m serious. I started meditation when I was in prison. My cellmate taught me how to do it.”
“You’re serious?” I said.
“Yes, absolutely so. In fact, it saved my life. But if you want me to tell you, it’s going to take a while. Want some tea?” Clara poured me a little tea, poured herself some, sat down and said, “I had gotten in an accident. I drank pretty heavily then. Not every day, but a lot on the weekends.
“I remember it was St. Patrick’s Day, and I started drinking in the morning. I took a nap, went to a party, got pretty drunk, then got into my car. That was my first mistake. I got lost, I called a friend, I didn’t know where I was. The next thing I know, I’m being handcuffed and put into the back of a car. And I passed out. When I woke up, I was in a jail cell. I asked what I was being charged with, and the officer said, “Assault with a deadly weapon. And if the woman doesn’t make it out of the hospital, you’ll be charged with murder.
“Now, I’m not going to bore you with the details of my incarceration, trial, and sentencing. Suffice it to say, the woman lived but she was in occupational and physical therapy for quite some time. And I was put in jail for a seven year sentence. I served three and a half years.
“But the first few weeks, I was a wreck. I was put in a cell, I had a cellmate, and all I remember doing was crying. I cried my eyes out for weeks at a time. I couldn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I just had this awful, heavy depression hanging over me. And it never seemed to lift.
“Well, one day, my cellmate Sheila, who was a very large but quiet woman, turned to me and said, ‘Lady, I’m going to tell you what. You’ve been crying for weeks now, and I’ve been very patient. But, honey, right now I’m about on my last nerve.’ ”Clara sipped a little more of her tea. “Now, I should mention, that my cellmate was in jail for her second time, both for the same charge: Assault with a deadly weapon. She was serving a ten year sentence. Oh, and I should mention this, too: she was about six feet tall and she weighed about 200 pounds. So when she spoke, I paid attention.
“Now, Sheila didn’t say this like she was upset. I wasn’t afraid she was going to hurt me. No, Sheila was very kind but firm. She said, ‘Lady, I’m going to teach you to meditate.’
“When she said that, something came over me. Something really peaceful. It’s hard to explain. But I knew something important was about to change in my life.”
Clara smiled and said, “Sheila sat me down and helped me concentrate on my breathing. Then we would sit together, just ten minutes at a time, and meditate. She gave me tips on focusing, sitting, and just being. Sheila said that she learned in prison after her second arrest. In her first year, Sheila told me that she could handle her anger better than she’d ever been able to before. She said she forgave the people that had hurt her in her past, forgave the men that hurt her, too. Sheila said it even helped her lose weight.” Clara began to giggle and said, “That woman must have been really large before I showed up.
“In time, I could do this on my own, and I felt a sense of peace. I’m not going to sugarcoat the process, though. Meditating in prison is a little like meditating on a street corner at rush hour. The noise can be a bit much. But that was good training for me. I was able to shut out the noise, and really increase my focus.
“When I got out of prison, I started teaching ex-cons meditation. I’d get referrals from probation officers. Then, when the probation officers saw what a change took place in their cases, some of the probation officers wanted me to teach them. Before I knew it, I was teaching classes in the courthouse to a bunch of these folks.
“You have to do it, though,” said Clara. “Think of it like playing an instrument. You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to practice a little every day. But when you do,” Clara said, clearing away the tea cups, “you’ll see yourself and the world differently. Before I started meditating, I was a woman with a record who couldn’t stop crying in a prison cell. Now, I’m living a peaceful life.”
Clara moved into her living room, lit a candle and waved at me to follow. “Come on now, honey. Let’s get started on changing your life.”
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