I was at Target one recent day, shopping and musing about the blog. I bumped into Patrice Koelsch and asked her about her prison volunteer work. I thought it would make an interesting story. Patrice said that her prison work really grounds her practice. And that comment opened up a better topic: How do people ground their practice? How do they take it into the world?
I posed the question to three Common Ground members. The resulting three short essays will run on consecutive days.
Patrice: Prison practice and letting go
Over a cup of tea, Patrice recalled her first year of practice. She decided early on that it needed to include service. She began working with people who were dying of AIDS. At that time, her work had a predictable arc: people got sicker and sicker and eventually died.
She wondered about other kinds of volunteering, where the results of her service would be much more ambiguous. “I thought, ‘What would it be like-how whole-heartedly could I engage with compassion-if I didn’t know what the outcome was?'”
She tried international volunteering, helping at a wildlife rehabilitation center and prison work, and the prison work stuck. For the past 10 years, Patrice has continued the prison work with a loose-knit group of Buddhists from a variety of traditions. They teach a basic mindfulness practice. She goes to St. Cloud and Stillwater prisons once a month. She and others spend about 90 minutes with prisoners, interspersing short sits, short talks and conversation. The teachers spend time trying to demystify meditation, talking about it as “a practice of radical non harming.”
The prisons are noisy. It’s tough to concentrate. And the mediation postures, well, “it is however people can prop themselves up,” Patrice says.
The experiences ground her practice in many ways. One is simply seeing offenders try to transform themselves and live an ethical life-and their struggle to do that in conditions that often don’t support it. “If people can practice in these difficult situations, what is my excuse?” she asks
The experience has increased her gratitude practice. She appreciates the simple act of walking outside. At St. Cloud, prisoners don’t go outside the building from September 30 to April 1, not even in the yard.
Much of the change she sees with the offenders is incremental. But there are moving testimonials. One man, a refugee, was doing time for a double murder. One day he said: ‘If someone were to tell me right now I could leave but I would have to go back to my old mind, I wouldn’t leave.'”
For herself, Patrice is still working on letting go of outcomes.
“I don’t know if these guys will practice. I have no idea what will happen the next day, the next month,” she says. But when everyone is sitting together, “we are all doing what is really skillful. I have more a sense of the present moment at those times, really being in the present, than in a lot of other circumstances.”
In her own daily practice, she tries to call to mind the names and faces of as many people as she can that she has sat with over the years, with the intention of sending loving-kindness to them. “I don’t know what has happened to them, but I still have that ongoing sense of wishing them well,” Patrice says.
“That seems to be enough.”
Tomorrow: Gardening practice