Prison Sangha at Washington State Reformatory

A most gratifying aspect of our work at Still Sitting is creating products that serve people in meditation. We are honored to provide a comfortable seat to anyone engaged in this challenging, quieting work.

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with a community leader who uses our cushions for a very special purpose. Amy Darling is a Seattle-based acupuncturist, herbalist, and mindfulness teacher. Darling, who has been practicing meditation for 20 years, has spent the past 9 years traveling to the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) in Monroe, where she leads a group of prisoners in meditation each month. Darling is one of several Buddhist volunteers who support inmates at WSR.
The sangha is a group of men whose experience with Buddhism is mixed—some grew up with it in the home, others first encountered it as adults. The group meets either inside the WSR chapel or, on dry days, in the garden just outside. The garden is surrounded by chain link fence with hurricane wire running along the top and has designated sections for various faith groups.

“There’s a Gnostic section, a section for Wiccans, for Native American groups, and we are in the center. We get the tree,” Darling says, referencing the tree that was dug up from a crack in the concrete and transplanted by an inmate decades ago.

Twice a year, the group conducts all day sesshin in an event known as Buddhafest.
“I hungered to offer the guys a taste of monastic practice in prison, some experience of the training I do at Tahoma One Drop Zen Monastery on Whidbey Island. I wanted them to have a spacious period of silence and time. And they come and they stick it out, 12 hours on linoleum covered concrete; sitting, walking, a bit of Qi Gong to bring ease to the body, meals served right there –DOC issued baked beans and hamburgers.
We asked Darling if there’s an emotional toll to spending all these hours inside the prison.

“I’m filled with awe at the fruits of cultivating the mind that I see with the guys out there. I feel grateful to continue to share time with them. And it’s not an emotional toll, not a net negative, but a net holy cow.”

Darling says members of the prison sangha are on the same journey with meditation as anyone in the general population. She tries to meet them where they are, to bring something concrete, and to assist in cultivating awareness in ways that will be most beneficial to the individual.

“They have the same questions, answers, inquiries, confusion as anywhere—if you’re at a desk in downtown Seattle or if you’re behind bars—it’s the same for anyone starting meditation.”

For those inside, one of meditation’s benefits may be in dissipating anger.
“If they lash out either violently or with speech, they might end up with an infraction or at worst end up in isolation. This is a downward spiral, and for some, such incidences will have a strong impact on their time in prison. For many, finding tools to shift their relationship to/expression of anger is a big one.”
Darling’s own path to meditation began on a cultural immersion program in Nepal in the mid 90s. She immediately appreciated the spirit of inquiry that was folded into Buddhist teachings. When she heard the simple-yet-profound guidance to notice, when you are taking a deep breath, that you are taking a deep breath, and to notice, when you’re taking a shallow breath, that you’re taking a shallow breath, something clicked. She began practicing in the Zen Tradition a year later and has continued.
Her work with the WSR prison sangha is part of a larger devotion to helping others find solace in mediation.

“When I am more aware, I hurt myself and others less, and I believe and have witnessed that goes for all of us. I’d like to contribute peace in this world, this immediate, rather frenzied and constrained, explosively growing urban environment in which I choose to live.

“I have this vision that if we could all — the entire city of Seattle — be quiet together for just five minutes, we would cultivate peace.”

4 comments on “Prison Sangha at Washington State Reformatory

  1. on

    I wanted to thank you for this wonderful read!! I definitely enjoyed every bit of it.
    I have you book-marked to check out new things you post…

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    Great post but I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this topic?
    I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further.


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